Gary McNair on his new play UGLY! – 'Minor characters always have interesting stories'
It was growing up as the youngest in a family of four, says Gary McNair, that first led him towards the business of storytelling and entertaining. “Trying to attract a bit of attention, and make people laugh, ” he says, “it was what I enjoyed, and I was good at it.”
And more than 30 years on, McNair’s gift for live storytelling – combined with an unstoppable sense of humour, and a sharp eye for the social and economic forces that shape our lives – has helped him build an extraordinarily rich and varied career, as a playwright and performer whose work ranges from classic adaptations, through brilliant solo shows based on his own life, to disturbing verbatim work like 2017’s Locker Room Talk, inspired by a famous remark of Donald Trump’s, and based on hundreds of interviews with men across Scotland on how they talk about women in all-male company.
During his career, he has challenged audience ideas about how voting works, invited us to tear up ten-pound notes, and written gorgeous, funny and moving monologues based on his childhood and teenage years in Erskine, including his acclaimed 2015 show A Gambler’s Guide To Dying, about his relationship with his remarkable old grandad.
In the last 18 months, he has toured across Scotland with his intensely researched National Theatre of Scotland show Dear Billy, a love letter to Billy Connolly from the people of Scotland; and this autumn, the Tron Theatre staged his new Dickens adaptation Nae Expectations, as Andy Arnold’s final production before stepping down as artistic director.
And now, he is not only in the thick of rehearsals for his first family and Christmas show – a new version of Cinderella called UGLY! A Cinderella Story, for Cumbernauld Theatre – but is also looking forward to seeing leading Scottish actor Forbes Masson step up to perform his 2022 monologue version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll And Hyde at the Lyceum in January.
“I think I’ve always resisted being confined to any one job in theatre,” says McNair, who now lives in Glasgow with his wife Kate and their two young children, “and that’s partly because I was lucky enough to get my training on the famous RSAMD Contemporary Theatre Practice course, back in the early 2000s. The emphasis there was on performance, and the visual aspects of theatre, rather than text; and because I didn’t know much about theatre before I went there, I just accepted that absence of conventional jobs and categories as normal.
“Then when I graduated, I was lucky again, in that it was the heyday of the Arches under Andy Arnold, and there was this marvellous space where you could just pursue that open-ended and collaborative approach to theatre-making – my heart really broke for the next generations of theatre-makers coming up when that place closed.
“It wasn’t until I was working on my financial crash-inspired show Crunch, in 2010, that Kate suggested I should write the script down; and it took me a while after that – when I heard David Greig pointing out that the word “playwright” actually suggests play-making, rather than play-writing – that I felt able to say yes, among other things, that’s what I do. And now, I’m very proud that many of my scripts have been published by Oberon Books.”
From his years at the RSAMD and the Arches, though, McNair retains a strong sense that risk-taking, and a willingness to keep experimenting with different forms and styles, is essential in creating theatre that is truly alive. When his version of Jekyll and Hyde opened in Reading last year, he worked with director Michael Fentiman and aerial artist Audrey Brisson, who starred in Fentiman’s West End production of Amelie The Musical, to create a remarkable solo version of Stevenson’s story which is now being reinvented again for Forbes Masson’s performance; and his Cinderella story for Cumbernauld focusses, in typically left-field fashion, on those normally reviled figures, the Ugly Sisters.
“Well, those minor characters in fairy tales are always the ones with the really interesting stories, aren’t they?” says McNair. “You want to know who hurt that person, who made them like that.
“And when it came to Jekyll and Hyde, I just thought the plot of this story is so familiar to people, I’m not interested in dramatising that again, and trying to make a horror film out of it. Instead, I want to get to the heart of the impulse to tell the story. Who is it, here, who has this story on their chest, and has to unburden themselves? Who needs to speak to us? I knew from very early on that I wanted it to be a monologue. And I can’t wait to see Forbes perform it at the Lyceum, because I know he will be completely brilliant.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, too, McNair remains primarily interested in live theatre, with occasional forays into radio. “Yes, it’s mainly live theatre for me,” says McNair, “and if I didn’t know why I was interested in it when I first applied to the RSAMD 20-odd years ago, I think I do know now.
"It’s because of that thing you can’t get anywhere else; that it’s truly a shared experience, with everyone in the same room. I never tire of that. We say to the audience, ‘we will take you somewhere, but at the end we will all still be together, because we’re never leaving here.’ More than even the greatest live music gig, that gives you a chance to entertain people, and move them, and also leave something with them – some thought or feeling or idea they never had before. And to me, that’s just magic, always.”
UGLY! A Cinderella Story is at Cumbernauld Theatre at Lanternhouse from 25 November until 30 December. Jekyll And Hyde is at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, from 13-27 January.