Ben Harrison: 'We are almost pathologically averse to repeating ourselves'

Doppler filming in Gifford Community Woodlands / credit: Janeanne Gilchrist

Site-responsive theatre company Grid Iron are back at the Fringe with an outdoor show about our need to retreat back into nature

From their foundation in 1995, Grid Iron established a strong reputation for performance that is innovative and provocative, exploring intriguing stories and challenging the predictable formulae of theatre. Their site-responsive productions have taken the action from the stage and into working hospitals, morgues, under the water, and beneath the streets of Edinburgh and, for their 2021 Fringe show, into a forest.

Having been preceded by a film in March 2020 called Doppler: The Story So Far, which catalogued the company's earlier attempts to stage the show in Gifford Community Woodlands, this long-awaited Fringe affair is an adaptation of Norwegian writer Erlend Loe's satirical novel. Grid Iron's co-artistic director Ben Harrison felt an immediate kinship with the story of one man's attempt to escape the pressures of modern life by retreating into nature. 'I was drawn to the ecological theme, the very witty anti-capitalist rhetoric, and the notion of trying to live a simpler, less material life,' he says. 'It has such a strong sense of place, in particular the forest, that both my co-artistic director Jude Doherty and I thought was perfect for us.'

Even when working indoors – as with their adaptation of Pu Songling's Strange Tales at the Traverse in 2019 or Bukowski's Barflies from ten years prior which was performed in Edinburgh's Barony Bar – Harrison's approach has always emphasised the location of performance. Here, the source material explores a man's relationship with nature and the ways in which 'civilisation' insists on intruding. 'Doppler's sense of wanting to "become" the forest is Loe's reaction to the absurdity of capitalism, where the kind of bathroom tile you choose becomes more important than empathising with victims of the US/UK invasion of Iraq,' Harrison explains of a huge theme that resonates specifically with the current social context. 'There was certainly a link between the text and what we were all living through in terms of the slowing down, listening to nature, animals coming to the fore, and the planet taking a breather. I'm thinking of the pollution clouds over China clearing after only a few weeks last spring.'

Grid Iron are always artistically restless and eclectic in their dramaturgy ('Jude and I are almost pathologically averse to repeating ourselves'), with a style that is difficult to define. Doppler certainly speaks to the company's enthusiasm for addressing serious ideas and advocating, through their works, for a theatre that is politically aware, moral, and joyous. If the hero is running away from consumerism and chasing a more authentic, ecological life, his story still recognises the importance of delight.

'There's a celebration of the physical and the body and appetite,' Harrison continues. 'Doppler, in his search for real human connection, in his struggle to find truth, is part of a tradition in our shows that began with The Bloody Chamber in 1997. Doppler argues almost despite itself for the need for true human connection, and perhaps most particularly with an animal, the Elk Calf, who becomes a kind of surrogate child for him. In that way, it's a very healing fable for our times.'

Doppler, Newhailes House, Musselburgh, Sunday 8–Monday 23 August (not 10, 17, 19), various times, £15 (£8). Previews Friday 6 & Saturday 7 August, 2pm, £8.