The experience of theatrical touring has long been woven from contrasts. On the one hand, there’s the undeniable romance of the road, the fun of exploring new places, but on the other – well, there are the sometimes grim discomforts of being stuck for weeks on end in transit or deeply dodgy accommodation, surviving on an unbalanced diet of pot noodles and gallows humour. Something of these indignities was captured beautifully in Ben Jonson’s evocation of the travelling player in Poetaster: the player Histrio there has the prospect of success as a poet dangled before him, with the singular benefit that he will ‘not need to travail [meaning both ‘travel’ and ‘labour’] with thy pumps full of gravel any more, after a blind jade and a hamper, and stalk upon boards and barrel heads to an old cracked trumpet.’
By the same token, as Jonson indicates, touring exposes a theatre company to different kinds of performance contingencies – on the positive side, there are the potential excitements of new sites, spaces, audiences, but set against that are the frustrations and limitations of unworkable venues and limited or dodgy tech. These latter contingencies, in particular, can keep companies otherwise keen to travel from getting their satnavs dirty.
Which is why Paines Plough‘s Roundabout is such an interesting departure. First unveiled at the Edinburgh fringe last year, and now back after a successful year on the road, Roundabout is a fully equipped portable theatre – indeed, a veritable dramatic Winnebago. It began as a gleam in the company’s eye five years ago, and was then given concrete form by the designer Lucy Osborne. A prototype, plenty of trial and error, some nifty fundraising and a new kind of LED light helped make Roundabout a reality. And now the veteran touring company (more than forty years is enough to qualify for veteran status, no?) has its own bounded and structured space – which can be put up or taken down in a day, without specialist expertise, and with no individual part so large or heavy that two people can’t carry it. It’s an IKEA theatre (called ‘Karusell’ in the catalogue, no doubt), only it appears you don’t even need to swear loudly as you put it together.
Roundabout gives Paines Plough an enviable freedom. No longer in thrall to the contemporary equivalent of Jonson’s ‘boards and barrel heads’, they can boldly pitch their bespoke tent in places unreached by other theatrical enterprises. And even the technical limitations of portable theatre don’t seem to have constrained their imaginations – the circular space they’ve built themselves, artistic director James Grieve tells me, reflects not so much the practical exigencies of a portable auditorium as their own bias towards performing in the round.
But the killer features of Roundabout aren’t apparent until it comes to life. Sound and lighting are completely integrated into the structure, with hidden speakers and a ceiling studded with LEDs. The rig has no trouble conjuring up the overbearing presence of the troll teacher in Dennis Kelly’s play for children, but is controllable and responsive enough to create a multitude of different atmospheres. This dark dome and its starry firmament evoke the sensory thrill of a planetarium, a magic lantern show or even a circus – Paines Plough have not just sought to put the spectacle back into touring theatre, but to do so by tapping into a wider tradition of travelling entertainment which has its own romance (and, of course, attendant indignities).
With Roundabout well launched, the company are exploring the capabilities of their mobile home. There’s a varied programme of shows at this year’s fringe, and they have ambitious plans not just to take the theatre itself on the road for at least ten years but also share it with other companies. Nonetheless, one can’t help wondering whether the benefits of having a consistent and familiar space to work in are always going to exceed the limitations or constraints of such familiarity and consistency. Is Roundabout sufficiently adaptable in all the right areas to give Paines Plough enough room for inventive manoeuvre? Does even the snazziest, far-roaming snail get tired of looking at the same old whorls? It’ll be interesting to see how things unfurl.