Theatre: Trio's timely approach

Emphasising the universality of their plays is a priority for the team behind Suspect Culture, a young Glasgow theatre company. Brendan Wallace reports
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AS THEY prepare to bring Timeless, their most ambitious show, to London, Graham Eatough (who directs) and David Greig (who provides most of the text) have reason to feel proud of themselves. In just five years they have transformed Suspect Culture from yet another student theatre group (who originally got together in Bristol) into one of the most innovative companies in Scotland. And with three major productions under their belt - One Way Street (after Walter Benjamin), Airport and now Timeless - they have not only impressed with their work, but have managed to build links with Europe (by means of co-productions and workshops) that are unusual in the world of Scottish theatre.

Not that they're ashamed of their humble student origins. "People tell us that it's great that we've just had our third production," observes Eatough, "but I worked out the other day that it's actually our 12th."

Timeless is by far their biggest project, though. "Just the other day, I worked out how many people we employed," says David Smith, administrative producer and the third member of the Suspect Culture team, "and it was terrifying. I think, if we'd thought about it too much, we'd have been too afraid to do it."

It was only after a slow process of trial and error that Suspect Culture's distinctive approach evolved. Perhaps the most difficult early decision was choosing Glasgow as a base. Says Greig: "At first it was more a negative thing of not moving to London... But once we arrived, it was easier to work out our artistic agenda. We'd always developed things in rehearsal, for example, but when we moved here we realised that that was what we existed to do. And we realised that we wanted to look at the physical side of theatre in a conscious way rather than simply letting the actors do what they wanted. And, thirdly, even though we were to be based in Scotland, we wanted to have a European angle to our work. That meant not just taking European influences into our theatre, but also creating work with the intention that it could and should tour abroad."

Timeless itself is an attempt to create a work with a certain amount of universality. On one level, it's the story of four friends who have become mired in nostalgia for their youth, yet, when reunited, fail to re-create it. But this touches on numerous other themes to do with ageing, memory and sexuality, all related to the problem of how twentysomethings deal with facing the responsibility of age.

It's a theme that's cropped up in Friends and This Life, but what sets Timeless apart is its non-naturalistic approach and its integration of text with music (in this case, composed for a string quartet by Nick Powell).

"One of the initial ideas was just to use music in a way that we hadn't done before," says Eatough. "Subsequent to that was the notion of trying to tell a simpler story than we had done in the past. Some of our earlier work had been very fragmentary, with actors playing lots of different roles and stuff like that. So, for this one, we made a conscious effort to give each performer one role, so that we could explore their characters in a bit more depth."

The next problem was to work out a chronological structure around which to orient the piece: Timeless takes three moments in the lives of the characters, and attempts to relate them back to an (almost) mythical picnic on the beach, which has become a symbol for their lost youth. As such, the "story" sounds mundane, but then, that was very much the point.

"We didn't want to make the characters significantly different from people like ourselves, or people who might be sitting in the audience," says Greig. "We wanted to find a strong level of depth and emotion in ordinary situations, and we were keen to create a level of intensity without having, say, a murder, or some great unusual event."

And, in Scotland at least, it seems to have worked. Eatough says he's been amazed by how much audiences have related to it: "When you've set yourself up as doing something vaguely new or different, questions of accessibility become really important. We don't want to be on the live art fringe, or to be seen as esoteric, so we're really pleased that audiences seem to have this emotional engagement with the work."

As befits Suspect Culture's European perspective, after its London run Timeless goes on tour abroad, and will be followed by collaborations with companies in Milan and the Basque country. But, for now, Greig and Eatough are basking in the rapturous reception the show is receiving, and their arrival as a world-class theatre company.

"We are doing a different kind of theatre from anyone else in Scotland," says Eatough, summing up. "I don't know anyone else with the same artistic objectives. And I don't think your average theatre audience will have seen anything like it."

'Timeless': 17-21 March, Donmar Warehouse, Earlham St, London WC2 (0171- 369 1732)

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