Is it possible to find theatre’s essence? Graham Eatough thinks so: "After a long time of people associating theatricality with fakery and artifice, there’s been a recent reappraisal of what theatre can be. There’s maybe a different kind of truth in the pretending."
A theatremaker since 1992, Eatough co-founded experimental theatre company Suspect Culture. He ran it until the company ceased in 2009 with his university friend and award-winning playwright David Greig. There's a book on the company's work authored by the pair, catchily titled The Suspect Culture Book. Since then, Eatough has worked both in the UK and abroad on projects in theatre, visual art and film. This year has seen his Nomanslanding at Tramway, Glasgow and the installation No End to Enderby, at the Manchester International Festival. National Theatre of Scotland’s commission How to Act is up next.
In this meta-theatrical work, fictional theatre director Anthony Nicholl (Robert Goodale) teaches a masterclass of African-inspired acting techniques to Promise (Jade Ogugua), an aspiring actress. What unfolds is an investigation into cultural appropriation, objective truth and exploitation for art’s sake.
Eatough believes that whilst it’s more problematic in wider society, theatre is in a fantastic position to challenge our views on cultural appropriation: "We have this hope that if we tell a story well enough, [theatre] can transcend cultural differences. But I think that’s just an expression of a more general idea that deep down we’re all basically the same... The play is trying to test these ideas and their potential to ignore important differences between us, and the reasons these differences might exist."
Not one to stage something so thorny without research, Eatough says, "I’ve been looking a lot at Greek tragedy as well as the political context for this play, which has to do with the west’s relationship with Nigeria."
But how much power does theatre have? Can a play like his bridge the cultural gaps in our increasingly polarised world? Eatough is measured, but positive: "I think it can but it’s as much about acknowledging difference and cultural specificity as it is about trying, or pretending, that we can transcend [them] through the power of theatre."