Heggie's back and this time it's personal

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AN APOLOGY. In common with every other publication in Scotland, this newspaper might have given the impression that Iain Heggie was never going to write for the theatre again. Articles such as ‘Theatre Schmeatre: I’m Outta Here’, ‘Heggie Exits Pursued by a Bear’ and ‘That’s Definitely My Last Play Ever’ might have led readers to believe the playwright had written his last.

Scotland on Sunday is happy to make clear that no such inference was intended by these articles. Iain Heggie is indeed still writing for the theatre and, quite possibly, never stopped. Why, only this month, Glasgow’s Vanishing Point is staging his latest play, Sauchiehall Street, and taking it on a UK tour.

All the same, when I meet Heggie one evening just before he embarks on an all night proof-reading session of the published version of his new play, I have to point out that some confusion might have arisen from his previous remarks.

After all, was it not Heggie who, in 2001, told the Edinburgh Evening News that "It’s impossible to make a living as a playwright"? And was it not Heggie who, at the end of 2002, told the Herald that most of his projects over the past five years had cost him "about two or three times" what he was paid and that he could not go on?

Were we not right to assume he’d finished with play writing when all the evidence was there: his move into directing with The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Glasgow’s Tron; his place among the first scriptwriters on River City; his successful parallel career as a teacher at the RSAMD; and his recent reinvention as a poet, turning up for readings with Des Dillon?

"I know you don’t believe a word of it, you think it’s all just a bluff," he says, laughing. "But this play started life before I said that. Then I was working in TV for a year and then I had to write a film. In the meantime, theatres came back and removed some of my problems: certainly money - not a lot of money but enough to cover the writing costs. And I have now accepted a number of commissions."

To be fair, there was always good cause for his original disgruntlement. Play writing in Scotland is hardly the most profitable business. The standard commissioning fee for a full-length play - as recommended by the Federation of Scottish Theatre and the Scottish Society of Playwrights - is 7,000. That means a writer not only has to write, but crucially, have accepted, three plays a year just to earn the national average wage. It’s not surprising Heggie thought he could do better elsewhere.

For fans of theatre, however, it’s a relief he’s decided not to jack it in. Since his full-length debut with A Wholly Healthy Glasgow in 1987, Heggie has shown himself to be one of Scotland’s most demanding, provocative and downright entertaining playwrights. Whether it was his early hits such as American Bagpipes and Clyde Nouveau, his sketch compilation The Sex Comedies, the outrageously titled Wiping My Mother’s Arse or the foul-mouthed filthiness of Love Freaks, he has produced work that is linguistically dazzling, psychologically troubling and invariably funny.

Sauchiehall Street is about to join that list. Taking its name from Glasgow’s busy shopping street, the comedy is set in the office of an actors’ agent - one Dorothy Darvel - who, when she’s not working for her young clients, does everything she can to shore up the foundering career of her once famous actor husband, Gerard. There are two interlinking stories: one about Dorothy and her timid trainee; the other about Gerard and a younger actor. "I wanted a theme more than a story, so I went for apprenticeship and retirement," says Heggie, 50. "It’s to dangle the possibility that there is something benign in the world that happens between older, experienced people and younger people who are just starting out. It gives the older people value and the younger people wisdom."

"But then," he adds with a smirk, "to treat that comically and to be as perverse as I would normally be."

What, then, of the rumour that Sauchiehall Street is Heggie’s chance to take sideswipes at the theatre profession, that the play would be naming names and settling old scores? "I’d like to know who told you that so I can punch them," he says, a little startled.

As it happens, I genuinely can’t remember who my source was (Andrew Gilligan eat your heart out), but is Heggie’s irritation because the story is true or because it’s not? "No, that’s not enough to write a play on," he says. "If all the personal gripes were coming in, they would up-end the play. It would put me into the position of being right and a play is not about a writer being right. It’s not an opinion column in a newspaper. The dramatic issue is always about something that has no right answer: the character gets offered two different types of hell."

The play’s origins are as a short play called The Actors’ Agent’s Tale that went out on Radios 3 and 4 in 2000, starring Maureen Beattie. Heggie is forever testing out new ideas, revisiting old work, rewriting, deleting, appending - recognising that play writing is a complex craft that needs time to mature.

Because he’s such an exacting writer, his work hasn’t always had justice done to it on the stage. His early plays in particular are a barrage of half-sentences as each character inter-cuts the last, requiring a discipline of the actors that is hard to achieve. Rather than immerse themselves in their character in the style of the method school, Heggie’s actors must "think on the line": they are nothing until the thought pops into their heads. His plays, suggested one of his directors, Caspar Wrede, have a closer relationship to the pre-20th century high comedies than to the naturalistic comedies of our own time.

"I’m thorny for actors because there’s no tradition of high style in Scotland and, worldwide, writers don’t really write it any more," says Heggie. "Even actors who do 17th and 18th century heightened style well, as soon as they come to a modern play they want to go back to a more televisual style. It’s a leap for some actors to play high comedy in a contemporary play."

Failure to understand this or, more typically, failure to allow enough rehearsal time for the actors to get up to speed, can make these potentially hilarious plays fall flat. So, knowing the conditions of production for what they are, has Heggie tried to make his work less of a challenge? "Yes," he says. "The biggest example of that is me cutting back on the overlapping dialogue. I know that unless your actors are fantastically disciplined, with superb voices, and the theatre’s got brilliant acoustics, it can go haywire."

But his desire to achieve a form of theatre that has the same sense of heightened reality - not to mention hilarity - as stand-up comedy is not in vain. He’s hoping that the open and honest working relationship he has with Vanishing Point’s director Matthew Lenton will create the conditions for his new play to take flight. "I’ve seen the heightened style work brilliantly - I wouldn’t be doing it for nothing," he says. "Some people find me difficult because I’m very frank, and the thing I loved about Matthew is that he would just be frank back."

Sauchiehall Street opens at Cumbernauld Theatre (01236-732 887) March 10, 7.45pm, then tours until April 3

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