Interview: The TEAM – ‘Everyone thought the Highlands were ugly until Walter Scott made them beautiful’

Rachel Chavkin and Davey Anderson discuss collaboration with National Theatre of Scotland, the Highlands, Scottish pessimism and The Karate Kid

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Light entertainment

credit: Eoin Carey

The Rapture, the Civil War, the housing bubble: the TEAM’s high-concept and masterful tackling of American history and politics has made them one of the most exciting theatre groups in the world. And it’s a point of local festival pride that their success began in Edinburgh, with Fringe First winner Give Up! Start Over! (In the darkest of times I look to Richard Nixon for hope) having appeared at C venues in 2005.

Since then, they’ve returned with Particularly in the Heartland, Architecting (with the National Theatre of Scotland) and Mission Drift, all at the Traverse and all Fringe First winners. Now, after a five-year gap, they’re back with another NTS co-production, Anything that Gives Off Light, in the slightly glitzier setting of the Edinburgh International Festival. ‘It’s probably always useful to just think about it as a Fringe show because otherwise I would buckle under the stupidity of premiering a show at an international festival,’ laughs director Rachel Chavkin. ‘I can’t really think about that too much.’

As well as being their first official EIF appearance (discounting a workshop for this show in 2014), it’s also the first TEAM affair not set in the US. Anything that Gives Off Light takes on the Scottish Highlands and its mythic appeal, as a London-based Glaswegian with his granny’s ashes and an American on honeymoon without her husband take a road trip north.

‘Like so many things, it began in a bar,’ recalls Chavkin. ‘I was hanging with Davey Anderson, Sandy Grierson [who excelled in last year’s Lanark] and [Northern Stage director] Lorne Campbell. We were joking about the point at which different American movies would end if they were made in Scotland. The one I remember most vividly is one of them screaming “if The Karate Kid was made in Scotland, it would end when Daniel San breaks his leg”.’

Anderson, who worked on Architecting with the TEAM in 2008 and is associate director alongside Chavkin, remembers the night too. ‘Rocky came up as well,’ he adds. ‘In any of these sporting underdog movies. you have the idea of the small guy who, against all odds, triumphs and succeeds, which is not the stories that we tell ourselves in Scotland. Quite often there’s a doom-laden miserablist pessimism in Scottish fiction, which stems from a social realism and trying to tell truthful stories about real people’s experiences throughout Scottish history. But it’s become a kind of genre about a negative self-image and pessimistic narrative arc. It’s interesting to compare those things and think about how can we explore that in a story.’

Anything that Gives Off Light stars TEAM regular Jessica Almasy, as well as Grierson and fellow Scottish actor Brian Ferguson, all of whom co-developed the play alongside Chavkin and Anderson. There’ll also be live music on stage from indie rock duo, the Bengsons. ‘Their music is so primal and raw,’ says Chavkin. ‘Both of them are obsessed with the traditions that bind Scottish music to American folk.’

This work has been about five years in development, against a backdrop of the Scottish referendum and run-up to the EU vote (both Chavkin and Anderson spoke to me before the Brexit result). So, it’s never been a better time to take a closer look at the myths surrounding national identity.

‘I think a huge part of the story is a commentary around the tropes of Highland atmosphere,’ says Chavkin. ‘One of the things we became obsessed by in the research was that everyone thought the Highlands were ugly until Walter Scott made them beautiful. And with the invention of this mythic noble past, this landscape is suddenly given a new light. I think this is the story of three people who come up against the story they tell themselves as individuals and as citizens of their country. And so, we are very aggressively reckoning with the romance that has been hung upon the Highlands, as well as some of the actual historical narrative of that place.’

‘This show feels like part of how you make sense of the current day,’ adds Anderson. ‘Is it a crisis? Is it a series of crises? Is it a questioning and an awakening of political identity, sense of self and questioning of everything you felt to be solid before? It feels like politically we’re in a period of flux, and it’s exciting to try and address how things that have happened in the past continue to shape our political present.’

And as Anderson notes, the title too is one for the ages. ‘The idea of anything that gives off light feels like someone is searching for something, kind of fumbling about, trying to find the thing that gives meaning to their existence. And so mostly that’s what it’s about. That mood of frantically searching for something that gives off light, the thing that you can hold on to and take hope from.’

The TEAM: Anything that Gives Off Light, EICC, Morrison Street, 0131 473 2000, 18–26 Aug (not 21), various times, £25. Previews 16 & 17 Aug, £20.

Anything That Gives off Light

  • 4 stars

After years of living in London, a Scottish man catches the sleeper north carrying his granny’s ashes, trying not to think of this trip as a homecoming. In a pub in Edinburgh, an American woman drinks alone, trying to remember who she is while forgetting where she came from. When their paths collide, they set off on…

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