"To me, magic begins and ends with the figure of the magician who asks the audience to believe that the lady is floating in the air," declared Orson Welles. The play War of the Worlds, as conceived by Anne Bogart, which her theatre company, the Saratoga International Theatre Institute (Siti), is bringing to the Edinburgh Festival, relies on suspension of disbelief. For a start, the image, for many, of the legendary film director is of a fat guy hawking Californian wine and doing the rounds of TV chat shows. Yet, in the two years she spent preparing the play, Bogart felt that Welles "seemed to be a perfect person to live with". That image was, after all, only the tail-end of a life that exploited magic and fakery in equal parts.
Bogart and her co-creator, Naomi Isuka, use Citizen Kane as a model for the play's structure, profiling Welles from four different perspectives but with just one actor. "We go fairly chronologically through his life," says Bogart, "touching on his upbringing, his radio days, his early days in Hollywood with Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, his trip to Brazil and his effort to make a film during the war. And we follow him to Europe and through his later adventures. But it all keeps revolving around the way he slid into [the radio broadcast] War of the Worlds and somehow became a world citizen, the bad boy prankster whom everyone knew, and who never quite recovered from this loss of his virginity."
Welles, who died in 1985, has been attracting a lot of attention recently, in the feature film Cradle Will Rock and the docudrama RKO 281. But a play, with Kane as the blueprint? How can we expect that very particular type of virtuoso acting shot in long elegant takes, never mind that opening frame of the forbidding gates of Xanadu, those oppressive ceilings and the last glimpse of the vanishing Rosebud? "The advantages of being in a live theatre situation are that - though I'll probably never make a film - I can turn the live experience of being in a space with an actor into something less representational and more expressionist. I think my work has changed, spending so much time with Welles's films and his life. I've learnt a lot about using cinematic perspective on the stage and translating filmic techniques so that they work for the theatre and for actors' bodies."
Bogart's War of the Worlds shares only its title with Howard Koch's radio adaptation of H G Wells's apocalyptic vision of the world invaded by Martians, although Siti is also putting on a late- night showing of its take on the 1938 broadcast. Bogart is pleased that the company has an opportunity to present three "wildly different" pieces in Edinburgh. "Depending on where we are and what we're doing, some people actually think we're three different theatre companies." If theatre imitates cinema in her War of the Worlds, actors imitate audiences in another play, Cabin Pressure, where, as one line goes, "...anything can happen. Anything."