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Peeping at Bosch

Ian Smith and Mischief La-Bas in partnership with the National Theatre of Scotland and Tramway
Tramway, Glasgow
(2008)

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It is heartening that The National Theatre of Scotland has been willing to team up with Glaswegian performance artists Mischief La-Bas: not only do La-Bas have a reputation for being both experimental and funny, head honcho Ian Smith is a generous and imaginative collaborator.

For this promenade study of Bosch's famous Garden of Earthly Delights, Smith has involved a large part of Scotland's alternative theatre scene, from veteran Butoh choreographer Lindsay John through to up-and-coming company For We Are Many. Using video and computer technology, original music, a rotating carousel and countless wandering performers, Smith allows the audience to contemplate Bosch's wondrous details at their leisure and amusement.

Peeping at Bosch, like the triptych that it explores, is divided into three sections: The Garden of Eden, a durational piece featuring Alex and Florencia Rigg; The Garden of Earthly Delights which features a series of miniature performances based on the iconic imagery; and finally Hell, a trio of souls in torment. The audience is invited to dwell in each area, observing the different moods and interacting with some of the performers.

The programme encourages us to "ponder our own position in the painter's bizarre cosmology", and each area has a distinct mood and ambience. Eden is calm and gentle, hell is loud and jarring. Rather than a polished perfection, the costumes and set have a slightly home-made, Heath Robinson quality, undermining the severe religiosity and settling the pieces somewhere between 1970s' children's television and ironic carnival. Smith's own presence- a medieval hustler, strolling between scenes and keeping a watchful eye on the proceedings- emphasises the carnivalesque atmosphere.

As theatre, Peeping at Bosch is great fun, an engaging and amusing wander through the past that is leavened by Mischief La-Bas' recognisable humou r- they make an unexpected, but convincing connection between Carry On films, Harry Enfield and modern Live Art. Abandoning traditional theatrical structure - the seating banks disappear into scatter cushions, a carousel replaces the proscenium arch, scripts dissolve into repetitious and abstract choreography - Peeping at Bosch manages to pose plenty of questions about performance and dance without the usual po-faced pieties.

The lack of identifiable characters, the replacement of beginning, middle and end with an audience defined path through the painting - even the exit, which turns a predictable audience questionnaire into a parting chuckle: all of these combine to create an usual and unsettling atmosphere. The cavernous space of Tramway 1 is converted into intimate rooms, demonstrating a profound sensitivity to atmosphere and setting.

As a work in progress - Smith aims to recreate the entire environment into an outdoor show- there are hints that Peeping at Bosch might involve into something remarkable. Individual encounters are moving or provocative, Lindsay John's choreography is endlessly fascinating and the immersion into this other world of nymphs and saints is inspiring. However, there are weaknesses, most notably in the subject matter.

Lightness of touch and witty irony inevitably detracts from the seriousness of Bosch's intent, and there is no effort to engage with the painting as anything other than a colourful surface. Despite the lack of biographical material on the painter, his work is quite clearly engaged in Christian theology, and the themes of redemption, grace and damnation that he studied are part of a specific tradition. Hell is hardly a reality, even to many modern Christians, and the performance's detached scepticism fails to bring either torments or delights to understandable life.

Ultimately Bosch becomes a meditation on entertainment and theatre: the raw material of morality and faith that has inspired generations of artists is mere content, the medium through which the ideas flow. There is a slightly embarrassed attitude to the religion - very much in tune with modern sensibilities, but hardly profound or challenging. The Garden of Earthly Delights is reduced to a trivial fantasy, offering nothing to a modern audience but laughter.

Difficult as it might seem, if Smith can maintain his light touch and humour - and the intimacy of the scenes- while taking the source material more seriously, he will create a work that will inspire Scottish theatre, and perhaps move the NTS away from their bias towards scripted work. As it is, Peeping at Bosch is a great night out, and a fascinating sketch for a grander design.

Until 13th July

Reviewer: Gareth Vile