Sex and God is a intriguing title: coming from the company, Magnetic North, which recently presented a walking shit singing a nihilistic number on everything's inevitable end, it's provocative. Artistic director Nicholas Bone has a reputation for an eclectic selection of styles and collaborations: in recent years, he has counted David Shrigley, The Red Note Ensemble and Pamela Carter as allies.
"Magnetic North's commitment isn't so much to experimental theatre as to experimentation, to asking the question 'What happens if...?' " Bone says. "That's why our creative development programme Rough Mix (in which we put artists from different practices together) is such an important part of how we work. Rough Mix explores the practice of creativity, and what happens during those workshops feeds into everything else we do as a company."
Out of the Rough Mix sessions, Bone discovers new possibilities for Magnetic North productions. Bone continues, "For me, the idea is the thing that you start with, and then you have to find the approach (a style or scale) to suit that." Previous productions have ranged across the spectrum, from a study of an American transcendentalist philosopher to a full scale, contemporary opera, written by David Shrigley, better known as visual art's most celebrated cartoonist. "For Walden, the answer was intimate and direct, for Pass the Spoon it was big and brash."
Pass the Spoon, a fine example of how the Vital Sparks commissions has helped unlikely alliances blossom, established Magnetic North as a company able to work on an impressive scale. "I had planned for a long time that we would do an opera at some point and after doing a show with one prop for an audience no larger than 40, it seemed like a good moment to stretch ourselves in the opposite direction," says Bone. "Now, having done a big show with puppets, singers, a dancing turd and a live band to audiences of up to 900 people at a time, it is hugely refreshing creatively to do a show for four actors speaking on a simple stage with no props. In all cases the focus is on how you communicate with an audience, the difference is how you decide to approach that."
Nevertheless, Bone's decisions are as much about the artists he wants to work with. "Sex and God started with Linda McLean and I trying to find an idea that would interest us enough to spend quite a long time exploring it and making it happen." Since all of Magnetic North's performances have a strong intellectual identity - they often address big issues or complex ideas - it's unsurprising that the eventual concept was inspired by visual art.
"The idea that gradually evolved was of portraying suspended time - the immediate inspiration was Cornelia Parker's installation Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View - and then we had to find what the story was," Bone continues. "We started off looking at a particular story, only a minute fraction of which remains in the final play, but somehow it didn't work."
Yet the solution came from McLean's more historical interests. "Linda went back to some research she'd done previously on the lives of working women in Glasgow. We'd both been working on Rough Mix and Linda said "I know what the play is" and then wrote a first draft incredibly quickly."
"It was the most extraordinary first draft I'd ever read - it seemed to have flowed out fully formed. The idea of suspended time, of a fractured, impressionistic narrative fitted the stories perfectly." Once the idea matched with the content, Bone and McLean discovered that Sex and God fitted with the vision of the Scottish Mental Health Film and Art Festival.
"There are four characters in the play, each from a different time in the 20th century," Bone explains. "One of the characters - Lizzie - ends up in a psychiatric hospital and her journey is about accepting the events that led to her confinement." Sex and Death's tour is part of the festival, and makes explicit the connection between Magnetic North's theatre and the wider discussion of ideas.
Given their track record for making serious work - even when it involves a massive shit on stage, or play for laughs, Magnetic North respect the theatre as a space for thinking and debating - Sex and God's inclusion in the SMHFAF seems another sensible alliance in a history that has demonstrated how restless collaboration can build a repertoire of performances that reflect the both the breadth of Scottishntheatrical styles and the questions being asked in the wider society, whether that means what a shit might think of fine dining or the connections that bind individuals across time.