"Fresh, Vital and Urgent": The Panopticon at Eastern Promise

We speak to the team at Platform and director Debbie Hannan about upcoming show, The Panopticon

Feature by Roisin O'Brien | 05 Sep 2019
  • The Panopticon

After an intense summer of crowded cities, Fringe madness and painfully unpredictable weather, Scottish theatre kicks off its autumn and winter programmes. On the evenings of Friday 4 and Saturday 5 October, Platform in Easterhouse, Glasgow will host its ninth Eastern Promise festival. A multi-arts festival of live music, performance and visual art, this year’s line-up includes the preview for National Theatre of Scotland’s The Panopticon, innovative folk music from Burd Ellen, and Erased Tapes pianist Lubomyr Melnyk. It looks to be an intimate and carefully-curated weekend of possibilities.

Programming cutting edge theatre and exhibitions alongside participation activities, Platform’s driving ethos is its commitment to create possibilities for communities and artists to come together. Located in The Bridge in Easterhouse, the building houses a theatre, a swimming pool, a family-friendly cafe and a library.

Eastern Promise started in 2010 purely as a music festival with the aim of hosting international and Scottish artists, explains Alun Woodward, Music Programmer at Platform. That year featured "two really special sets" from Nils Frahm and Rachel Grimes. This year, Woodward enthuses about the upcoming performances from Burd Ellen – "I love their imaginative filtering of folk music; I think some people have that gift of holding onto a tradition whilst travelling forward with it" – and Erased Tapes pianist Lubomyr Melnyk. "We had been listening to [Lubomyr] for years and finally booked him to play last year. It sold out really quickly, so when he said he was touring again it seemed perfect. I think his mesmeric virtuoso performances are the perfect way to round off the festival." Californian singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist David Allred also joins the Saturday night line-up.

The festival was always about "the music and musicians we’re listening to and then asking them to play," but over the past few years, the team talked about how best to incorporate all the visual art and performance they had been enjoying. "Last year was the first year of the multidiscipline format and it was such a great event with amazing energy through the building," Woodward explains. Included in this year is a new exhibition from Duncan Marquiss, reflecting on the architecture and surroundings of Platform.

Friday evening sees the preview of The Panopticon, presented by National Theatre of Scotland: it is the first stage adaptation of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel of 2012. The novel led Fagan to be included in Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013, the only Scottish author on the list. She was recently selected as the 2019 Dr Gavin Wallace Fellow, and as part of the fellowship will be creating a ‘poetic almanac’ in response to Summerhall and its history. The production is directed by Debbie Hannan, whose previous NTS productions include Girl Meets Boy, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour and Enquirer. After opening at Eastern Promise, The Panopticon will head to the Traverse in Edinburgh, with the opening night on 10 October. 

Matt Addicott, Programme Lead for Performance at Platform, is delighted to host the first performance of the play: "It is very exciting to see how Jenni, director Debbie Hannan and the rest of the company adapt and stage this award-winning novel," he says. "The story… feels fresh, vital and urgent." 

In Fagan’s novel, we follow 15-year old Anais Hendricks – a child let down by just about every adult she has met – into the Panopticon, a vast institution for chronic young offenders. Hannan describes Fagan’s stage adaptation as keeping the "potent visual world of the novel [which] takes us through multiple locations, headspaces and realities with a bright burning energy."

The original panopticons were circular prison buildings, designed so that one guard from the high central watch tower could watch all the inmates at once, without the inmates ever being fully sure if they were being watched, explains Hannan. In Fagan’s novel, she continues, there is this sense of surveillance and institutional oppression alongside the magical realism of Anais’ imagination: set designer Max Johns has "designed a space which holds both." Lewis den Hertog has created the video design and animation, while the sound design from Mark Melville "takes us away from naturalism." The production also promises an intensely physical performance, with fight direction from Emma-Claire Brightlyn and movement direction from dance artist Skye Reynolds.

"Jenni is a force of nature – she is a dynamic and brilliant artist, who has been immensely generous at every point of the process," asserts Hannan. "She's an inspiring woman – her life is a counter-cultural artwork in itself, and if I was ever to start a riot to bring down the system, I'd want her at the front of the battle with me. In fact, she'd already be one step ahead!"

Hannan and Fagan worked together to develop the play to its final draft, and Fagan has been integral in every other aspect, from casting to marketing. Hannan describes their relationship as "real partners in crime," with Fagan allowing her "to respond to The Panopticon as an artist in my own right, and bring my interpretation, while also keeping me true to the core of the story." A feature film adaptation of the novel also  remains on the cards. "I know she's been excited by the idea of The Panopticon living on through other artists and mediums," adds Hannan, "and I'm thrilled to be making the first live version of it." 

The opening of the play in the East End of Glasgow, alongside the eclectic music line-up, may draw audiences out who haven’t been there before. Matt Addicott speaks of the East End as vibrant and creative, contributing to the art and cultural life of the city. They hope to offer something a bit different. "Our aim is for the festival to be as accessible as possible. I’m definitely biased, but I think you’d be hard pushed to find a similar line-up anywhere in the city for the price."

While Edinburgh might still be recovering from the Fringe, the festival spirit in Eastern Promise allows a level of freedom to book things that wouldn’t be possible as a single performance, explains Woodward. "From our perspective, it’s interesting to book things that maybe have a thematic link and there’s greater scope for that with a multi-arts festival." 

Keeping with Platform’s welcoming ethos, the emphasis for the team is to facilitate audiences taking a punt on acts they know a little less about, or crossing over into an art form that they may know less about. "It’s not necessarily about challenging yourself, it’s more about being curious for the night," explains Woodward. "It's great to hear people talking about such experiences, finding new and different things to enjoy," Addicott adds.

Hannan is proud to be previewing at Eastern Promise, praising Platform’s consistent and exciting programming throughout the year. As for what she is hoping audiences will gain from the production? "I'm hoping audiences connect with Anais as a brilliant firecracker of a lead character, really question the toxic, institutional structures that she's thrown into again and again, and ultimately experience how imagination is a powerful form of resistance and resilience."

Eastern Promise, 4-5 Oct, tickets from £7.50
The Panopticon, Platform, Easterhouse, 4 Oct; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 10-12 & 15-19 Oct