Like any good artist, playwright David Leddy’s primary concern is neither words nor visuals, but the senses.
One of Scotland’s most unconventional directors, his previous site-specific works have needled at least one of them: from a play taking place purely through headphones in a garden (Susurrus) to a flesh-creeping backstage tour of a gothic theatre (last year’s Fringe hit Sub Rosa).
For his latest offering, his first in a conventional theatre space, Leddy plans to go one step further. Instead of watching the play unfold in its entirety onstage, he plans for most explosions of plot, character and emotional connection to happen in the audience’s head. Once seated in the theatre, the lights will go out and a velvety voice will ask the audience to begin meditating.
You see, with this year’s Fringe show, Untitled Love Story, he is offering up his own theatrical roasted ortolan. For those not well versed in gastronomic roguery, roasting and eating an ortolan, a small French songbird, is known to be one of the world’s most sensuous—and outlawed—snacks.
The small bird is first drowned in cognac, plucked, roasted and then eaten whole. Its tiny bones puncture and lacerate the mouth’s lining, mixing the eater’s blood with that of the bird. All the while a napkin is placed over the diner’s head. By denying the sense of sight, the senses of smell, touch and taste are enhanced.
The ortolan is not just a handy analogy for Untitled Love Story – one is crunched and devoured in the play too. But stay your howls of protest: it happens only in the audience’s head. Leddy has been a studious vegetarian since childhood.
He admits that for years he has wanted to stage a show where darkness and meditation is a key aspect. It foregrounds the audience, reduces the artist, enhances the art.
“Our imaginations are very powerful things,” he says. “A play doesn’t have any inherent meaning of its own. The audience contribute most of the meaning when they interpret it. They draw on their own understanding and experience to understand it. I just wanted to push it one step forward, to embed it in the weft and weave of the piece.
“Besides,” he adds with a sigh born out of jetlag after returning from opening Susurrus in Brazil, “I think it will be a nice antidote to the insanity of the Fringe. You’re tired, hungover, running all over town between shows. And then you arrive with us: there’s a beautiful soundscape that washes over you, a warm velvety voice telling you to stop, take a deep breath and relax. It will be a welcome relief.”
For anyone who has previously immersed themselves in a Leddy show, they will know that his unconventional staging is no gimmick. If he puts it on in his own flat, as he did in Home Hindrance, there is a valid, emotionally resonant reason for it. Likewise, meditating in Untitled Love Story actually is integral to the plot.
It is set in Venice, “the city of the imagination” according to Leddy, because “it looks exactly as it does in your mind”. Four characters wander through the city’s narrow alleys and canal sides. Taking place over four decades, they never meet. One is a priest accused of heresy, another is a writer who loses her partner, one is an art historian with the night terrors, and the other is Peggy Guggenheim, art collector and patron of modernism.
Speaking to Leddy, it appears he is besotted with this latter character. He read her memoirs recently, “a fast and breathless, stream of consciousness, with wind whipping through her hair as she drives her red sports car with a Giacometti sculpture on the back seat.”
And like all infatuations, jealousy is part of its DNA. Leddy looks back on the time of Guggenheim and her ilk with longing. “I wanted it to be about this period of the mid-20th century when there was this enormous, explosive energy, the feeling that the past had been swept away and a new world could be built out of the energy of our own minds. And I felt quite envious of those artists, with their hope of what the future can bring.”
As for Leddy’s future, he certainly has designs for it – and it isn’t on the Fringe. This is the last year he will be staging work here. He has now been in Edinburgh three years in a row: three costly years.
“The Fringe is very expensive,” he says. “It compromises the quality of the work. I don’t think it’s a good idea to become a fixture at the Fringe and be a company who are there every year. That was never our intention. So get us while we’re here. We won’t be here for long.”