New lease of life for rent strike heroine

ALOT happens in 21 years. In 1985, Chris Hannan (pictured) was the 27-year-old spearhead of a promising generation of Scottish playwrights. He had written a couple of short plays for Edinburgh's Traverse, an agit-prop collaboration with John McGrath for 7:84 and was about to make a name for himself with a play called Elizabeth Gordon Quinn, a powerful historical drama infused with the miners' strike politics of the day.

Directed by Stephen Unwin at the Traverse, with Eileen Nicholas in the title role, it had a lukewarm reception which built to a roar of approval by the time it was revived on the Fringe. The Guardian said it confounded "all expectations" and created something both "startling and provocative".

Set in the Glasgow rent strike of 1915, it was about the eponymous Quinn, who refuses to accept the fact of her own poverty, clinging to her independence and the piano she can't even play, rather than be swept along by a tide of social unrest. Anticipating Margaret Thatcher's 1987 claim that there was "no such thing as society", here was a character in denial about the living community around her.

There was something heroic in her blinkered self-belief, and for all her dislikeable qualities, audiences were irresistibly drawn to her. She was one of those rare characters who become bigger than the play they inhabit.

Fast-forward to 2006. Hannan's name as a playwright is firmly established, thanks to Shining Souls, his 1996 black comedy, and he is about to make a major splash on both sides of the Atlantic as a first-time novelist.

Meanwhile, the National Theatre of Scotland has been born, a body prepared to put its weight behind a play such as Elizabeth Gordon Quinn, not seen professionally since 1992, and to proclaim its worth on five of the biggest stages in the country.

Hannan came to two conclusions. One was that he could no longer expect an audience to see parallels between the rent strike and the miners' strike as in 1985. The other was that he could make the character of Elizabeth Gordon Quinn a more forceful presence.

He set about rewriting the play, and although the order of the scenes, the characters and the story remain intact, up to 75% of it has changed.

"I realised I was writing a personal family play and disguising it as political," he says. "So I've concentrated on her as a character to give it more universal appeal."

Expecting to work on the original script, Siobhan Redmond backed out of the production just before rehearsals began to be replaced by Cara Kelly, whose performances in Molly Sweeney and Blood Wedding have been recent highlights at the Glasgow Citizens. If there is any bad blood between Redmond and the NTS, they are keeping tight-lipped about it.

"The NTS means being able to cast really good people in tiny parts," Hannan says. "John Kielty, for example, is a musical genius and we've got him as one of the workers who carries in the piano. When he plays the piano, it makes it a bigger moment, because he can play it and Elizabeth Gordon Quinn can't.

"The fantastic thing the first time round was people's incredibly visceral response to the character - that's terrific, and knowing that's the case, I've tried to write the play the character deserves."

As his career as a playwright is consolidated at home, Hannan is about to reinvent himself in the international arena as a novelist. His debut - as yet untitled - will be published next spring by HarperCollins in the United States and Canada, followed soon after by Chatto and Windus in the UK.

What's more impressive is that a novel bought first by the Americans begins in the Nevada of 1862, where a young woman, Dol McFadden, tries to escape her life as a prostitute and go straight.

"It's an exciting place to set a story," says the Glasgow-born writer. "Instead of a western populated with John Wayne types who are skilled in a wilderness environment, I wanted to populate it with people who are completely clueless about that kind of thing. When urban folks come across Indians, it changes it completely.

"Selling it to the Americans first was terrifying - would they buy the voice? But my editor adored the voice. That was a massive relief because it could have been the biggest folly of all time."

Dundee Rep, Tuesday until Saturday, then touring to Glasgow, Perth, Aberdeen and Edinburgh until June 10