Lumiere & Son Theatre Company was founded in 1973 by Hilary Westlake and David Gale. It was based in London. Westlake directed the shows and Gale, with some exceptions, wrote them. Their work derived from protracted conversation about their mutual preoccupations, followed by focus on a theme or topic which Gale would develop into a performance text.
The company presented itself, in the terminology of the time, as an experimental theatre group and, with support from the (then) Arts Council of Great Britain, toured widely in the United Kingdom, with frequent visits to Europe, Singapore and Australia. The work defied ready categorisation because the form and setting of the productions changed from show to show but invariably the work combined text, image, movement and music and took place not only in theatres and studio theatres but a great variety of indoor and outdoor spaces. The work was at times intimate and on other occasions produced on a large scale with casts of a few hundred deployed across parks, estates, castle grounds and swimming pools.
The visual identity of the company was evident in all its publicity material: graphic designer Storm Thorgerson of Hipgnosis produced stylish and dramatic posters for the shows and Paul Derrick designed programmes and brochures.
Lumiere & Son was renowned for its dark humour, innovative scenography and the distinctive psychology brought to bear on contemporary issues. The company aspired to work that was ‘Pure theatre, horridly funny and deeply alarming.’ (BBC4: Kaleidoscope. 1981) also ‘Popular, political and avant-garde, all at the same time.’ (Michael Billington, The Guardian. 1983)
Theatre: Themes & Styles
Prior to the founding of the company Westlake had been an actor/performer with the London La Mama Company and Interaction’s TOC and Gale, who trained as a film-maker, had been working as a performer with the London-based Phantom Captain group. Their first event, in 1973, was performed in the foyer and auditorium of the Rainbow Theatre, London for the progressive rock group Henry Cow. The tastes of the partnership were apparent in the deployment in the theatre aisles of performers in ill fitting suits and summer dresses carrying wooden platters bearing severed sheep’s heads.
The show attracted the interest of the Rotterdam Science Fiction Festival and Westlake and Gale were commissioned to produce a suitably generic piece to be played in and around the De Lantaren Theatre. This project, titled Tip Top Condition (1973), consolidated the use of hyper-extended and choreographically repetitive behaviour derived from the personal mannerisms of the performers and established a grotesque humour and physicality that would become signature elements of the company’s output for some time.
A strong interest in the language of dreams informed Jack…the Flames! (1973), a fragmented , nightmarish piece in which Gale, in an attempt to avoid the dialogue structures of naturalistic theatre, wrote only single lines or page long speeches for the figures on stage – an enduring characteristic of his writing throughout the company’s life. Westlake’s choreographic concerns were further developed in the integration of mannered unison movement with stylised text.
Westlake and Gale found an ideal vehicle for their preoccupation with psychic disinhibition in the folklore of the Trickster figure, a study of which informed the riotous vulgarity of the eponymous play (1974) featuring the comic performance of the late Eiji Kusuhara as well as an array of characters portraying well known and, in many cultures, normally concealed, body parts.
Themes of alienated directness (Pest Cure & Molester , 1975), sexual plague (White Men Dancing, 1975) and multiple personality disorder (The Sleeping Quarters of Sophia, 1975) marked a move towards an examination of psychological issues that hardened into the more politically incisive concerns evidenced in Special Forces (1976), a paramilitary ballet staged in a bare rectangular enclosure surrounded by its audience, and The Disaster Show (1976) in which a saloon car was ritually attacked and destroyed in the town squares of certain Dutch cities.
In late 1976 Westlake and Gale produced a show that fully expressed their thematic and stylistic concerns, establishing a bench mark for the synthesis of chilling psychopathy, verbal and physical humour and a kind of poetic baldness that would be found in their theatre performances for the next few years. Gale had wanted to dispense with the behavioural clutter of the conventionally rounded psychological character and attempt dialogue that would instantly reveal the desires of protagonists rather than suggest them in an indirect or subtextual manner. Similarly, Westlake conceived a stage movement composed of poised tableaux that would isolate speakers and then free them to regroup, interspersed with passages of unsettling slapstick violence heightened by the use of melancholic classical music. The play, Dogs (1976), featured a working relationship between figures based on the Marquis de Sade and his wife and the Moors Murderers – a team bent on the terminal manipulation of an immigrant couple.
Lumiere & Son’s most renowned show was Circus Lumiere (1980), an animal-free circus-like entertainment housed in a 360 seater custom-built five pole tent. The show featured a number of acts, each derived in some way from aspects of traditional circus but departing into darker and more adult territories.
Winding up a UK tour that included the Edinburgh Festival, Circus Lumiere played at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London where an audience member, recruited to act as a plant in an elaborate conjuring trick, inadvertently stabbed performer Andy Wilson in the spleen, which was removed later that evening at the nearby Charing Cross Hospital. The show continued with a replacement performer and Wilson recovered well.
After the 1981 play Slips, a show about childhood and memory, Westlake and Gale joined forces with the composer Frank Millward and produced a full-length opera, Senseless (1983), in which a psychopathic spy murders some tourists he mistakes for enemy agents.
Site Specific and Large Scale
Throughout its twenty year duration Lumiere & Son consistently made work designed for non-theatrical spaces. Early shows of this sort tended to feature the infiltration by performers of public areas in which performance was not expected. Outdoor performance skills were refined in a series of displays and events in, for example, colleges, supper clubs, a rugby club, a ferry boat and the Exhibition Hall at Olympia, London.
In the late 70s the company began to develop residential relationships with drama schools such as East 15 Acting School (1978), arts centres in Birmingham (1979), Cardiff (1979) and other cities, also community theatres such as the Albany Theatre in Deptford, London (1980), mixing professional actors with local non-professionals thereby extending cast sizes and prefiguring the large cast work that would steadily come to dominate Lumiere & Son’s output.
Out of these developments emerged a series of shows in which Westlake elaborated the inter-relationship of movement, text, song and music, producing dense, closely plotted pieces that combined elements of a number of performance forms. The 1978 show Icing examined, in this multidisciplinary mode, the discovery of a wild boy by four women while The Dancers (1978), Glazed (1979) and Giants (1979), all involving a mixture of actors and non-professionals, were ensemble pieces which gave prominence to, respectively, extreme exaggeration of emotion applied to a melange of fairytale plot elements, the perplexity of a stranger in a strange land and the travails of a dumb man in the company of befrocked men and women of towering stature.
In 1983 Gale decided to devote time to writing a novel (A Diet of Holes, Deutsch 1988). During this time he continued to write texts for shows conceptualised by Westlake. Following the larger cast shows of the late 70s were four markedly more complex pieces of music theatre of varying scales. Vulture Culture (1984) played the Henley Festival with a cast of fifty and featured a beached turtle beset by lowlifes; Brightside (1985), a story of optimism, was played by five actor/singers and a dancer. It won a Perrier Pick of the Fringe Award from the Edinburgh Festival. Deadwood (1985), a large scale perambulatory site specific show about the destruction of the rain forest, was perhaps the most acclaimed of the outdoor works. It played in the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew in London with a cast of 100 and was recreated in the Mandai Zoo for the Singapore Arts Festival as The Fragile Forest. Westlake won a Time Out Theatre Award for her “audacious and imaginative” production. War Dance (1989) was commissioned by the Nottingham Festival and set in the grounds of Nottingham Castle. Set on the eve of World War I its cast comprised actors, musicians and singers, in addition to squads of students and a horse.
The penultimate show produced under the Lumiere & Son umbrella and the first Gale had conceived and written since the libretto for Senseless was Why is Here There Everywhere Now? (1991) in which Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, and Chekhov’s The Seagull were edited down to 15 minutes each and played consecutively without breaks. Actors playing fathers or mothers etc would play comparable roles in each successive segment. The action then moved to a compressed episode from Pirandello ‘s Six Characters in Search of an Author, in which not only do dispossessed characters roam the stage but break out of the text completely and join the audience, with members of which they fall passionately in love. Refusing to resume their theatrical duties they are bullied into so doing by the appearance on stage of the director Hilary Westlake and the writer David Gale.
The company’s last show was Abduction (1992), in which three town dwellers are visited by enigmatic strangers.
In 1992 the Arts Council withdrew its financial support, compelling the company to cease trading. Westlake and Gale continue to make work together from time to time. This has included a large-scale large-cast outdoor show called ‘Dining with Alice’, commissioned in 1999 by the Salisbury Festival and by the Norfolk & Norwich Festival in 2011. The show places its patrons in a large country house estate where they eat a meal whilst encountering characters from Alice in Wonderland. It was directed by Hilary Westlake, with text by Strength Weekly’s CEO, writer David Gale, music by Frank Millward and produced by Artichoke (the company that brought ‘The Sultan’s Elephant’ to London).
Westlake and Gale also continue to work with other Lumiere & Son artists and regulars – performer Trevor Stuart, designers Katy McPhee and Simon Corder, composer Frank Millward and technical production manager Steve Wald.