OVER the past few years, Glasgow has been home to a generation of theatrical self-starters. Refusing to be pigeon-holed, they are not only writers but also performers – and frequently directors to boot.
Not content with waiting to be asked, they go out and stage their own work on their own terms. That work ranges from the personal to the political, from the witty to the poignant, and invariably talks directly to audiences in a style that is highly theatrical.
This year’s Fringe is a fine opportunity to catch up with four leading lights of this generation. There is Adura Onashile, who is talking about women’s place under the
male gaze; Jenna Watt, considering the pros and cons of nuclear weapons; Kieran Hurley, who is wondering if we’re all doomed; and Rob Drummond, analysing the chemistry and chaos of falling in love.
Linking them together is nothing but a desire to engage with the world in a way that is ambitious, serious and playful.
It’s easy to make assumptions about people. Take Jenna Watt. She’s a young theatre-maker often found on the fringes of performance art. In her last show, How You Gonna Live Your Dash, she taped herself into a boiler suit, put a funnel in her mouth, loaded it with paint powder and blew clouds into the air. She was lucky not to choke.
In 2102’s Flâneurs, she celebrated the joy of aimless walking and raged against violent street crime. And in one early piece, she volleyed apples into the audience with a baseball bat.
Knowing all this, you imagine she’ll be a left-leaning arty type and that when she puts on a play called Faslane, as she is doing on the Fringe, it’ll be a peacenik tirade against the horror of nuclear weapons. But no. She may well be a left-leaning arty type, but that’s not what the play is like at all.
Rather, Faslane is an honest attempt at seeing both sides of the Trident argument. “In the run-up to the Scottish referendum, there was a lot of talk about Trident and jobs at Faslane,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is a big thing, I should really know more about it if I’m going to have an informed vote.’ I made the connection that my family – aunties, uncles and cousins – work in Faslane and surely I should have an informed opinion of what’s happening there.”
She recalls playing five-a-side football with her cousins inside the base on childhood visits from her home in Inverness. She would notice the peace camp outside and have some vague sense of the place being contentious. Now as an adult, with friends protesting at the gates and an uncle who’d been honoured by the Queen for his work on a submarine rescue system, she felt obliged to look a little more deeply into what was at stake.
“Because of the work I do and the circles I mix with, I’d been handed a view that I should be anti-Trident,” she says. “I was like, ‘OK, so that’s how I’m supposed to feel. OK, I’ll take that. I feel safe in that because that’s what everyone else feels around me.’ Then knowing my family are so closely involved and so affected by an anti-Trident agenda, I suddenly realised I was basically saying I don’t support my family, I don’t want them to have jobs and I don’t care.”
To redress the balance and to bridge the gap between the personal and the political, she started interviewing those in the know.
She spoke to people from across the political spectrum, from a retired commodore to a family who had lived in the peace camp in the 1980s. “I was targeting people who would have polarised views,” says Watt, who now lives in Glasgow. “It was really interesting seeing people being opposites to each other.”
On her visits to Her Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde, as it is formally known, she realised how little she knew in detail. Like many of us, she would refer to “Trident” without a clear idea of whether she was referring to a missile, a submarine or a nuclear programme (it’s the latter). “A lot of people who are pro or anti don’t know what Faslane is,” she says. “How can you have such a strong view and not know what’s in Faslane?”
She reasoned the only way she could give everyone a fair hearing was to present herself as a neutral observer. “Throughout the process I’ve gone from feeling strongly one way to the other and back again,” she says. “The people I’ve spoken to have been really convincing and articulate. For me to say that I’m neutral meant they knew I was going to listen and not just challenge them all the time.”
She adds: “Being neutral felt safer than saying, ‘I don’t know what to think, I don’t have an opinion, I’ve not engaged with this properly.’ It was more passive because I could just sit and absorb everything.”
She even managed to stay neutral when joining an anti-Trident demo, although it was an odd position to be in, and it’s a line she’ll maintain throughout the life of the show.
Only after that is she likely to show her hand and get politically active. Having learned how to argue convincingly from both sides, she’ll have a view that’s more nuanced than average.
“My own connection to Faslane means I have a certain complexity regarding the issue,” she says. “That complexity isn’t out there in the debate – all that you have are the polarised views. Being in the middle doesn’t mean that you’re passive or neutral; it means there’s a lot of complexity.”
Keen to avoid the visual clichés of mushroom clouds and airborne missiles, she is working with musician Kim Moore to create an abstract sound design suggesting Geiger counters, submarine sonars and talking heads.
The show reflects the intensity of argument on both sides of the debate, favouring neither one nor the other, but forcing the audience to consider views different from their own. “It’s going to be antagonising for some people, but it’s a piece of theatre, so it’s a safe place to feel that way,” she says. “Just for a moment, you can imagine what it’d be like experiencing the other opinion – and then safely go back to the one that you like!”
Faslane, Summerhall, until 28 August. Today 7:15pm.
It’s the end of the world as we know it and Kieran Hurley feels – well, he feels like he should be doing a show about it. The Glasgow theatremaker senses we’re living through apocalyptic times and, in Heads Up, he imagines a city on the brink of collapse. “The main impulse for making the show is living in a world that feels like it’s built on disaster and crisis,” he says. “Perhaps every generation feels like this, but I really think we’re living through something seismic.”
His thoughts had been turning towards a “great ending” long before the political turbulence of 2016. Leadership battles at home and abroad, violence across Europe and the Brexit vote have only confirmed his hunch. “My impetus for writing the play was a feeling rather than an analysis,” he says. “That feeling is mainstream now.”
He is not, however, forcing any parallels: “The temptation when something seismic happens that is even tangentially related to your show is to go, ‘Rewrite it and make it a Brexit play’ – but that’s sensibly not what I’ve done.”
Instead, the play follows four unrelated characters in an unnamed city as they try to sort out their lives. There’s a venture capitalist working in futures, a 13-year-old gamer in an abusive relationship, an egotistical pop star and a service-industry drone who is under constant surveillance. “They are four detailed snapshots of a bigger story about a place at its end,” says Hurley. “I’m interested in conjuring a sense of this city and these lives.”
Hurley came to attention in 2010 with Hitch, a solo show about the time he hitchhiked across Europe to join an anti-capitalist demo in Italy. His subsequent work includes the rave-culture monologue Beats, winner of a CATS award for best new play, and the ceilidh-like state-of-the-nation collage of Rantin.
He sees Heads Up as a return to his elemental roots, but points out that even with a solo show, he’s a team player. This show began life as he explored ideas with director Alex Swift in a residency supported by the Playwrights’ Studio Scotland. Further ideas were triggered as he worked with composer Michael John McCarthy.
Sitting at a desk, Hurley will have two samplers in front of him, each with 16 channels. As he performs the play, he’ll bring in the various elements of McCarthy’s sound design. “It means the sound has a relationship to how the story is told,” he says. “The sounds become gestures.”
He describes Heads Up as a piece of storytelling rather than an overtly political play, but it is nonetheless underscored by a vision of a society undergoing traumatic change. “It’s a broad, heavy-fisted metaphorical sweep to allow me to talk about what it feels like to live with crisis and catastrophe,” he says.
As he sees it, the crisis affecting the planet on a macro level relates to a breakdown in human relationships on an intimate scale. We’re in an era when people routinely manage their public image on social media, effectively branding themselves like mini-corporations. By placing a financial value on social relationships, capitalism niggles its way into the private corners of our lives.
Throw in the effects of global warming and it feels like we have a recipe for disaster. He sees it as his job to ask how such perceptions, justified or not, affect our lives.
“One mechanism that we have for talking about great endings, from ancient myths to Hollywood disaster movies, is to offer a vision of the apocalypse,” he says. “The question of whether or not things have always felt like this is less interesting to me, because it’s purely abstract, than the question of whether the way we currently live is unsustainable. That’s a concrete question. Is the way we relate to each other as people in this society sustainable?”
Believing we’re living through the “turbulent stages of the end of capitalism”, Hurley is taken by an idea expressed by Fredric Jameson in 2003. In the New Left Review, the Marxist political theorist wrote: “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine the end of capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world.”
Heads Up does something similar. “It feels to me like we’ve reached a point where the economic system and its relationship to its resource – our planet – is at a breaking point,” says Hurley. “That’s increasingly accepted as a mainstream idea. It also feels that this specific phase of capitalism that you might call post-Reagan, neo-liberalism is coming to an end, even as darker things still are coming as a replacement. I do feel like we’re in a time of turbulent shift that might not be an all-consuming destructive end, but it’s a time of uncertainty and change.”
This is all very well, but how does a writer find an ending for a play about the apocalypse? “It’s difficult!” he says. “One of the things that the storytelling form allows is the capacity to declare that things are happening because they’re happening. They’re happening in the world of the story and the story only exists in the moment of its telling. I think I found a solution, but the form allows for many solutions.”
Heads Up, Summerhall, until 28 August. Today 7:05pm
Finding a sound-bite to sum up the plays of Rob Drummond is an impossible task. His output defies categorisation.
Consider this selection. In Bullet Catch, he recreated a Victorian music-hall magic act and got a volunteer from the audience to shoot a gun at him. In Quiz Show, he revealed the dark horror of child abuse behind the glitzy façade of TV light entertainment. In Rob Drummond: Wrestling, he staged a fight with three professional wrestlers. And in Mr Write, he dramatised the life story of a child in the audience.
All that links them is their high quality and their unexpectedness.
“I never like to get comfortable enough to not be nervous about it,” says the writer and performer. “It’s probably not very good for my mental health, but I jump around so much I’m always going, ‘How do you do this again?’ I like it because it keeps me on my toes. Never do the same show twice.”
Naturally, his new one, In Fidelity, is different again. As different, in fact, as the two shows that will follow it: The Broons, a mainstage adaptation of the DC Thomson favourite which tours Scotland from September; and Grain in the Blood, a noirish thriller set in an isolated rural community and staged as an autumn co-production between the Traverse and the Tron.
In Fidelity is not just different from the others, it’ll be different every performance. That’s because he’ll be inviting two members of the audience who are single and looking for love to come on stage for a date. The character of the show will depend not only on Drummond’s TED Talk-style script, but on the things each couple says and how well they get on.
“You put two people up there who are looking for love – and they both know they’re there to find love – that’s instantly watchable even if I did nothing else,” says Drummond, who hopes to keep tabs on the volunteers to find out if his theatrical match-making service leads to genuine romance.
The degree of uncertainty means director Steven Atkinson of HighTide Festival Theatre has spent much of rehearsals role-playing possible audience members. “I don’t know who I am any more,” laughs Atkinson, whose 2011 production of Lidless by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig won a Fringe First.
He adds: “The vast majority of time when you’re in a theatre, you’re just focused on the stage. This play is largely about the audience and the audience being aware of each other.”
Drummond picks up the theme: “Say during the day something happened in the news, this is the type of play that can be watched through that lens. I can even add a line. Each performance will be affected by the context of what’s happened that day.”
As we live through turbulent times, that could make Drummond’s play feel like a refuge. “I never intended to do a show about love based in a world that’s so terrified, but it lifts the play to a different level. It wasn’t the intent to do an antidote to a terrible world but it just has to be part of it now – a really nice little show in amongst all these explosions.”
Many would be freaked out by the idea of heading into the Edinburgh Fringe with a show based on such an unpredictable premise, but Drummond thrives on it. “I’m interested in honest interaction on stage and not kidding, not pretending,” he says. “Even though it’s so fake being up on a stage in front of people, it’s also so real. When you rehearse a play and learn lines for three weeks and get every moment perfect, it’s more fake than what I do. I love the moments that go wrong – they’re always the best. It opens up in ways you can’t predict.”
Having been amused by the idea of bringing two people on stage, Drummond realised he was approaching the tenth anniversary of his marriage – and the 15th anniversary of the relationship with his wife. “I started thinking, ‘Well, have I ever been tempted to cheat? Probably have been, yeah.’ I thought that would be an interesting idea for a show if the through-line was about my fidelity.”
With his wife’s approval, he signed up to internet dating sites for research, politely turning down offers to meet and trying not to be flattered by the attention. Having a scientific mind, he subjected himself to a brain scan to understand the biology of sexual attraction. He was pleased his ventromedial prefrontal cortex lit up when he was shown a picture of his wife. He was a tad disappointed when the same area of his brain came to life when he thought about sex with someone else.
“When my grandparents were growing up, love was like a God-given emotion,” says the Rutherglen playwright, now living in Loughborough where his wife has a university job. “It was high, lofty and ethereal. Now we can say, ‘It’s these hormones mixed with these chemicals and they’re delivered for this Darwinian reason.’ Then a computer algorithm matches you up and says you are compatible. I was a little bit down on the idea that it’s just chemistry and it’s all explainable, so for me, In Fidelity has been about finding a reason that knowing about it clinically doesn’t spoil it.”
In Fidelity, Traverse Theatre, until 28 August. Today 9:45pm
Adura Onashile’s mother has a phrase that sums her up. “Adura,” she always says, “you are either stupid or you are brave.”
There’s certainly something fearless about Onashile’s approach to theatremaking. Most debut playwrights step timidly into the public sphere with a lunchtime reading or a scratch-night try-out. Most debut directors do the same. Not Onashile.
She seemed to arrive fully formed in 2013 with HeLa, a powerful monologue about Henrietta Lacks, a woman who unknowingly provided a cell sample that led to multiple scientific discoveries. She’d never written a play before but it went down a storm. The Scotsman called it “a piece of theatre that not only entertains and moves, but asks essential questions about medical ethics”.
As well as being the production’s driving force, Onashile was the star. The show earned her a nomination for best female performance in the CATS awards and she went on to tour it to India, Brazil, Trinidad, Jamaica, South Africa, Zimbabwe and New Zealand.
She’s multitasking again with her latest play, Expensive Shit, this time as writer and first-time director. It’s a testament to the faith her colleagues have put in her that she’s making her directorial debut at the Traverse Theatre at the heart of its high-profile festival programme.
“Because I’ve taken my own route, there is a sense that I’m not conventional in the way that I’ve come to directing,” she laughs. “But I’ll always give it a go.”
It may sound scary, but as she sees it, it’s a logical next step. Because she was acting in HeLa, she needed the outside eye of director Graham Eatough to achieve her vision. By casting other actors in the new play, she’s able to do it herself.
“Expensive Shit is a progression of responsibility – and scale,” says Onashile, who studied experimental theatre at Dartington College. “I work in a very collaborative way so I see everybody in the room as lots of brains looking at the script. You still have to lead the room, but there’s an alchemy that happens when you have a few people gathered together concentrating on this thing.”
For all her high ambition, there’s nothing presumptuous about the London-born theatremaker, who fell in love with Glasgow when rehearsing for Cora Bissett’s Roadkill in 2010 and never left. Like many an artist, she’s simply generating her own opportunities. The alternative is not to work at all – or to suffer the indignities of typecasting. “I’ve played a slave and a prostitute more times than I can imagine,” she says. “Parts that have a range and presence are rare.”
With a cast of four – all female, all black – Expensive Shit connects three stories. The first is inspired by the disturbing case of Glasgow’s Shimmy Club which, in 2013, installed a two-way mirror so men could spy on the women’s toilets from a private room. It was, said the management, “a bit of fun”. The licensing board did not agree, closed the place for a week and ordered the mirror’s removal.
“What intrigued me was that it’s not weird men that go and do this – it’s just a bit of a gimmick,” says Onashile. “I was thinking about how something can start as a gimmick and then become more predatory, intimate, wrong and vengeful. You let one thing pass, then another and then you’ve gone too far.”
It’s a story we see through the eyes of Tolu, a toilet attendant who is complicit in the two-way mirror set-up. In the play’s second strand we go back in time to the Shrine club in 1980s Lagos where that same woman is dreaming of becoming a dancer. “In Glasgow, they are literally intruded upon by the two-way mirror,” says Onashile. “In Lagos, everything they do that they think is about their freedom, their dance routines and their singing, is actually about being picked up and judged.”
The third element is about the followers of the Shrine’s resident musician Fela Kuti, the afrobeat pioneer and human rights activist. He was also the husband of 27 women whom he married in a mass wedding ceremony after the Nigerian army had destroyed the commune he presided over for seven years.
“I’m looking at Fela Kuti’s politics from a female point of view,” says Onashile, who spent her formative years in Nigeria. “He was a giant of African music. Women were such a part of his aesthetic – their dance, their music and their singing – but there was a gender imbalance in power. The characters I’m exploring are waifs and strays who live in the commune and dream of becoming dancers in his band – and they suffer from that pecking order.”
Straddling decades and continents, Expensive Shit weaves these strands together – an imaginative leap Onashile attributes to the enterprising spirit of her adoptive home: “It takes some ambition to think you can go from writing a one-woman play to writing a four-woman play with these big themes, but I think Scotland is a place where that kind of thing can happen. There’s an energy of experiment that makes you think you’ll give it a go. OK, it might not be perfect, but it’s the doing that’s the thing. I thrive in that environment.”
Expensive Shit, Traverse, until 28 August. Today 1:15pm