In the big rehearsal room upstairs at the Citizens’ Theatre a man is facing up to his first-ever meeting with a dragon. She is a dragon who once used to be a woman – or at least he suspects so; her wings and shining scales are beautiful, her voice is familiar, she reminds him of a woman called Rima, whom he once loved.
In the strange world he now inhabits, though, perceptions are unreliable, ever-shifting; for this man’s name is Lanark, and what we are watching, in rough-cut early form, is one of the key scenes in Alasdair Gray’s mighty 1982 fantasy novel of the same name, now being adapted by playwright David Greig for a new stage version co-produced by the Citizens’ Theatre and the Edinburgh International Festival.
Greig is in the rehearsal room as the scene takes shape, changing a line here, shifting an emphasis there. Alongside him is his creative partner of the last 25 years, the director Graham Eatough, with whom he co-founded one of the key Scottish theatre companies of the 1990s, Suspect Culture; absent is the author himself, Alasdair Gray, now 80 years old, and seriously ill in hospital following an accident. Around Greig and Eatough move an extraordinary cast of 11 actors, ranging from the founder of Communicado Theatre, Gerry Mulgrew, to the brilliant actor, writer and director Sandy Grierson, who will play the hero, Lanark.
And through their combined efforts, they hope somehow to do justice to a novel which – though still relatively unknown outside Scotland – not only had a seismic influence on a whole generation of Scottish artists, but has also won international acclaim as one of the key magic realist works of the late 20th century, alongside the novels of Salman Rushdie, Italo Calvino and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
“When I first read this book at the age of 18,” says David Greig, “it was like a great door opening in my mind, onto a different possible creative future. It conjures up the whole possibility of a culture that is experimental and open and gutsy and odd and exciting - all the things Alasdair Gray has been as an artist, throughout his life. So our aim is to do in theatre what Lanark does to the novel – to play with the form, to combine the classic story of a young man growing into adulthood with that wild magic realism, and to create that same dizzying sense of just not knowing what’s going to happen next.”
Written over a period of almost 25 years from Gray’s early twenties to his mid-forties, and famous for its first-edition title-page quotation suggesting that readers “work as if you were living in the early days of a better nation”, Lanark is built around the relatively naturalistic story of one Duncan Thaw, a young artist trying to find a place for himself and his work in a battered and gloomy post-war Glasgow. Thaw’s story, though, comes wrapped in another narrative, a dark, brilliant and lurid fantasy-fiction quest in which Thaw morphs into the character known as Lanark, inhabits a nightmarish, dystopian version of Glasgow called Unthank, travels through a series of mind-blowing parallel universes, and finally reaches a moment of peace – although whether it brings extinction or redemption is never quite clear.
Hence the book’s famously strange structure – it offers “A Life In Four Books”, numbers three, one, two, and four, in that order; and hence Greig and Eatough’s decision to shape their stage version as a “A Life In Three Acts”, beginning and ending with Gray’s astonishing fantasy narrative, and distilling the Duncan Thaw story into a single central act.
“It does seem to fall naturally into three parts, when it comes to transforming it into piece of theatre,” says Eatough, during a break in rehearsals, “and probably into three different theatrical styles, if not more. We were determined from the start to make this a real ensemble piece, reflecting generations of artists in Scotland who have been influenced by the novel. That’s why we have this outstanding cast, who are all great makers of Scottish theatre in their own right. And it’s also reflected, for example, in the way our musical director, Nick Powell, is working on the score, bringing in a whole range of musicians – like Nick McCarthy of Franz Ferdinand – who all have their own perspective on Alasdair Gray’s work.
“For myself, I first encountered this novel back in 1990, when David gave me a copy. That was before I had ever been to Glasgow; so when I came to live here, in the winter of 1991, for me it became like a kind of strange guidebook to the city. And because I was living in the West End, I also became increasingly aware of Alasdair himself as an artist – the art-work and the presence, as well as the writing. So I’m delighted that this project is linked to last year’s 80th birthday celebration of Alasdair’s work, when Sorcha Dallas, who was curating the exhibitions at Kelvingrove and GoMA, asked us if we thought an element of theatre could be involved in the celebration.
“And yes, I suppose we are aware of the reputation of this “graveyard slot” in the festival programme, where a Scottish company is expected to present a brand-new piece of work alongside some very polished, tried-and-tested international shows.
“The upside of that, though, is the opportunity to introduce work that isn’t well known outside Scotland to a much broader international audience, who may never even have heard of the book. It’s the chance to bring this set of ideas, these worlds, Alasdair’s work, to an international audience; and Lanark is a truly great novel, even more resonant now than in the 1980s, that absolutely warrants that exposure, that prominence.”
So how do Eatough and Greig feel, as they prepare to meet their festival audience, about the two intensely political quotations most often associated with this novel – that early title-page reference to “a better nation”, and the much-quoted observation, within the novel, that cities really only begin to exist once artists have made use of them, as Gray uses Glasgow in Lanark.
“Well I think both of those ideas have been at the forefront of our minds throughout this project,” says Eatough. “Essentially, there’s a great human story here, of Lanark-Thaw-Gray, the artist, struggling to find a place in the world. And if it’s true that a place only begins to exist when artists use it, then that’s exactly what writing Lanark did for Alasdair – he helped to imagine into being the city, the culture, where he and other artists could find a place. As a testament to the transformative power of the artist’s imagination, it’s absolutely remarkable.”
And David Greig agrees. “Coming back to Lanark now,” he says “I can see how this book is a lifetime’s work, that just grows deeper and richer with each re-reading. To me, at the moment, it seems like a novel about a man searching for connection; not a ‘love story’, exactly, but a great imaginative work about the dystopian nightmare that begins where connection fails – both for the individual, and for society.
“In that sense, it’s both very personal and very political. We’ve found, though, that in transforming it into a piece of theatre, what works best is to focus on the human story, the human quest; and then to let the deep political resonances speak for themselves. And they do speak, in the most subtle and powerful ways.”
l Lanark is at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, 23-31 August, with a preview on 22 August; also at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 3-19 September.