The title of Untitled Projects latest venture perhaps made more obvious sense when the company first staged the play in 2006. Then, a slope was crucial to the audience’s experience – they were led up one, to perch around a heightened hole, looking down on the action of the actors, taking place in a fully functioning bathroom set up in a tank below them. Then the tumultuous relationship between the 19th century poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, and Verlaine’s teenage wife Mathilde, was put under birds-eye view scrutiny.
This time round the experience is a lot more intimate. The audience have been brought down to the actor’s level. Arranged on single rows of seats, on all sides of the central square of tiled flooring, the fifty or so onlookers are also onlookers of each other. The three actors take up positions on seats, they make eye contact with the audience, the drama spills over to the edges of the room – there are no clear lines between performer and watcher.
This disorientating experience is heightened by the presence of cameras at certain points within the set. The central conceit of this production is that everything within the theatre is simultaneously filmed and streamed straight to the Internet. The feeling of being part of the performance is not only a clever staging construct, but the truth. The show is played just as much, if not more, to the cameras than to those scattered around the room. Between scenes, loud music plays and assistants come onto the stage space to adjust cameras, as the actors stare directly into the lenses to perfect angles. The audience is drawn close to the performers and simultaneously pushed away. All conventional boundaries of drama are blurred, and the result is a strong sense of uncertainty and awkwardness – in a highly intriguing way.
This is a project clearly concerned with voyeurism and the idea of the public eye. In between interruptions, the plot of Slope is powerful, concerning hidden homosexuality, addiction and the struggle for artistic recognition. At the centre is the two men’s struggle with the public; they both reject society and create their own subversive world in a squalid flat of sex and drink, but also court fame. Verlaine (Owen Whitelaw) is caught between Rimbaud and his wife – between homosexuality and the avant garde, and the voice of respectable society. The weight of public opinion presses on him, perhaps even more than the alcohol sickness that steadily sinks its claws into him. The camera’s eyes trained on the central square seem to represent the ever-watching eyes of social opinion; they loom large and intrude into every moment of intensity.
Untitled Projects are obviously at the cutting edge of contemporary theatre. The company’s previous Edinburgh based work, The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, merged documentary, mockumentary, theatre, film, art exhibition and literary history, to create a totally unique experience, almost unable to be discussed in any full or meaningful way. Yet, their work does not fall into the trap of being obtuse or off-putting – the shows actually seem to highlight and complicate many of the tropes of the contemporary art world, making for more nuanced and intellectually stimulating pieces of theatre. At one point during Slope a range of artistic movements are referenced, from the Dada movement to a subtle allusion to the recent performance art piece that generated mass media coverage, Art School Stole My Virginity. The mish-mash of styles and approaches – all anxious to be rebellious, new and against the social grain – was purposefully jarring. It created the effect of repeated desperation, of clutching at straws for shock factor. It was a very clever move. The poets at the heart of the drama were placed in a long line of artists attempting to create things afresh, to challenge convention, and often failing, under the weight of public opinion. Slope takes its place amongst these cultural innovators, in its postmodern approach to drama, but also shows the project to be fraught, and often deserving of mockery.
With this production of Slope, Untitled Projects have created an intriguing, multi-layered drama, that seems to both admire artistic passion, creativity and rejection of social convention, while also cleverly sending up the image of the tortured creative genius. It is an original, smart, and expertly executed piece.