David Leddy’s new show harks back to his earlier, funnier work, but he’s still exploring weighty topics like laissez-faire economics. By Susan Mansfield
DAVID Leddy’s eyes are as playful as a cat’s. “You and I both know, if I say something to you in an interview, it doesn’t mean it’s true, it just means that I said it.” And he gets away with it because we’ve been talking about truth, authenticity, and how we choose what we believe. His new play “plays” with all of that.
Sticking to the provable facts for the time being, that play is called Long Live the Little Knife, and opens tonight for a three-day run at Film City in Glasgow (it will be in Edinburgh for the Fringe and will tour in September). It’s described as an action-packed comedy about art forgery, fake designer handbags, get-rich-quick schemes and drunkenness, a romp which should feel like “being driven fast in a clapped-out old Cortina”.
Its protagonists are Liz and Jim (Wendy Seager and Neil McCormack), con artists who make their living selling fake vintage handbags on a market stall until an urgent need for protection money propels them towards art forgery. It is performed in a room full of paint-spattered dust sheets (“like Jackson Pollock has had some kind of drunken explosion”).
The pair got a “prequel” outing in Thin Air, a seven-minute piece written for the Royal Shakespeare Company, staged as part of an evening at the British Museum, but Leddy always had a larger caper in mind for them.
“It got a great reaction. I was surprised because British Museum members are quite Home Counties, quite conservative. Somebody said ‘bum’ and there were titters round the room. This show is not quite as mild.”
Leddy has, in the past five years, firmly established himself as one of the most interesting playwrights in Scotland, but instead of writing for the country’s bigger stages he prefers to make experimental and site-specific work with his own company, Fire Exit.
His highly acclaimed gothic tale, Sub Rosa, was first performed backstage at the Citizens’ before transferring to the Fringe. Susurrus is experienced individually, walking in a Botanical Garden with a recorded text on headphones. It has now played in nine countries, and is soon to open in Brazil. Untitled Love Story is a luscious piece of writing set in Venice where four stories intersect.
But the playwright Daniel Jackson was not alone in the sentiments he voiced when he met Leddy on a train back from London last year and asked: “Are you ever going to do anything funny again, where people talk to each other?”
Leddy smiles. “This is that show. And after working on so many serious shows in a row, it feels fantastic.”
That said, there has never been a Leddy work that isn’t rich in ideas – not White Tea, where the audience wore paper kimonos and sipped Japanese tea, not Home Hindrance, a piece about living with his partner’s chronic illness, which was performed in their flat to an audience of six. Long Live the Little Knife started life when Leddy read How Pleasure Works, by Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom. “He talks about the idea that human beings believe essences get passed from people into objects. Art forgeries deeply confuse our sense of what those essences are. We have great faith that a genuine artwork has an essence which was passed into it by Vermeer while Vermeer was painting it. If it’s a reproduction, we understand that doesn’t exist. But if someone has copied it well, and may have the skill that Vermeer had but they’re not Vermeer, our brains get very confused.”
To this, he has added a critique of free market economics. “The art world is a metaphor for contemporary capitalism, particularly for deregulation and laissez-faire economics. You can drive up the value of an artist’s work, and then sell everything at once. In stocks and shares, that would be insider dealing, but in the art world it’s perfectly legal.” He says it’s no coincidence that the “stooshie” around Creative Scotland rumbled in the background while he was writing. “I think all of that infected the piece in that sense, because it’s a parody of that empty competition-driven, right-wing idea of laissez-faire. I’m very open and realistic about the idea that I’m running a business with Fire Exit, and we should be a well-run company, but it’s a company with a very particular aim. Its aim is not to make money, its aim is to make art.”
And then there’s the old chestnut about truth. Long Live the Little Knife may be verbatim theatre, based on interviews with a pair of art forgers. But, remembering his disclaimer at the beginning, it might equally be a playful critique of verbatim theatre. Leddy recognises that making theatre from the speech of “real people” has power, but says audiences should consume it more critically. “We often don’t think with enough rigour about the line between what’s real and what’s constructed. Any writer, any journalist, will tell you it’s not just the words that are spoken, it’s how you edit them. We cease to question, we allow everything intravenously into our bodies because we say ‘It’s all true’.”
It’s a pertinent point when, everywhere, “reality” is dressed up as entertainment. “We’re questioning it less and less and less. In ‘reality TV’ here’s a producer turning everything into a narrative, casting people as particular characters. I think we all need to be a bit more realistic about the hands of the people behind it that are editing and constructing meaning through the choices that they make.”
Leddy was also intrigued by the fact that people kept assuming his own work was based on personal experience, when it’s entirely fictional. “That’s very interesting with Susurrus, because it’s about paedophilia. People tentatively asked, ‘Is it, um, based on anything?’ And I say, ‘No, I never had sex with my dad, I made it all up, that’s my job,’ and they blush. But I wanted to address that more directly, that instinct that we all have in wanting it to be true.”
His questions probe the nature of theatre, at the heart of which is the use of illusion to communicate emotional truth. “Everything I’ve made does that. I’m interested in picking a piece of theatre apart and seeing how it works, like a car engine.” While such experiments are often cold and clinical, the difference with Leddy is that the car goes back together and gives you the drive of your life – even if it is a clapped-out Cortina.
• Long Live The Little Knife is at Film City Glasgow (formerly Govan Town Hall) tonight until Saturday at 7.30pm.