Taking over a derelict church in Leith, Wales' Volcano Theatre company promise a bold – and wet – revamping of a classic
In the chase for theatrical significance – the Fringe, after all, claims to be 'defying the norm', and at least some of its participants want to present a unique selling point – adapting Chekhov's The Seagull within 45 tonnes of water promises a radical take on the Russian classic. Chekhov's script, either a dark comedy or a domestic tragedy depending on the interpretation, has often been the victim of ambitious companies lacking the talent to bring out the nuance of the family relationships and the sardonic commentary on artistic pretension, but Welsh company Volcano insist that their theatre is 'on the fringe of the fringe'.
In line with the company's interest in a dynamic, spectacular and physical style of theatre, Volcano have arrived in Edinburgh and opened a new venue, in association with the Biscuit Factory. Taking a disused and derelict old church on Constitution Street in Leith, they have encased their Seagulls within crumbling walls and steel surfaces. The artistic director, Paul Davis, has an unconventional approach to performance, which is reflected equally in the choice of venue and the genesis of this project.
'A man called Rob came up to me in the Gym and said "do you like Chekhov",' he says. 'And over the puffing, the grunting and stretching, we had a wonderful conversation about Chekhov and I thought afterwards not only should I get fit but I should read Chekhov too.' From this inspiration, Davis crafted a production that refuses to bow to the usual polite interpretations of Seagulls' social conversations that hide depths of emotion, but, collaborating with movement director Catherine Bennett, hurls the characters around the space to a vigorous soundtrack that ranges from The Clash to Arvo Pärt.
The Volcano suggests the ancient and decaying society that Chekhov satirises in the very fabric of the building. By escaping the traditional proscenium arch stage, Davis relocates the action and provides an immediacy that is often lacking in interpretations of classic scripts. With an almost punk rock energy, and an awareness of how the site can shape performance, Seagulls immerses the audience in actions that are increasingly violent and frantic.
'Performance does need to interrogate, dispute, ridicule, support and contradict ideas,' he continues, and in the synthesis of direction and venue, Davis is making a clear point about the problems of a theatre that is bound by conventions which were developed in the 19th century. His early experiences appear to have formed his own tastes for something more immediate. 'Occasionally I went to the theatre but I couldn't understand what and why they were acting,' he says, which led to a reaction. 'I then started to make quite hard, physical shows. They were probably not very good, but people seemed to like them and so I continued.'
This hardness gives Seagulls its particular drive, and its willingness to rove across diverse dramaturgies – including a touch of aerial, plenty of choreography as well as the brilliance of Chekhov's portraits of characters in turmoil. Although there is a formality to Chekhov's depiction of the family unit, the grand passions that dwell beneath are made more explicit, more dangerous and – symbolised by the tonnes of water – an ever-present threat through Davis' attitude. And at the heart of his recreation, there is a desire to make the audience feel the power.
'It is intimate and we move the audience around: and the actors climb over them with very little covering their bodies so hopefully this enhance the audience's sense that this is a live and pleasurable experience,' he concludes. 'I would like the audience to really enjoy the extravagance of the show, the pleasurable mise en scene.'
Seagulls, The Leith Volcano, until 28 Aug (not 14, 21), 6pm, £12 (£6).