Issue 188 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July/August 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Lanark, a novel by Alasdair Gray, adapted for the stage by Alistair Cording, will be performed at this year's Edinburgh Festival. Pat Smith spoke to the director Tony Graham, who directed A Scots Quair to critical acclaim two years ago.
PS: What prompted you to choose what some might consider to be the difficult option of bringing adaptations of these classic novels to the stage?
TG: A Scots Quair is taught in schools but I also have a personal fascination with the author, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, who is a very important 20th century artist. The critical qualities of many Scottish artists make Scotland a very attractive place to work. I believe that Grassic Gibbon shines like a beacon among the rest.
He was a Marxist but he was an unorthodox Marxist. He was very hard on Stalinism and the Stalinist method, and the official movement considered him to be a bit of a dilettante, and he was quite happy with that. On the other hand he had nothing to do with the establishment. It's notable that he wrote the Quair while living in Welwyn Garden City when he was in exile, because in Scotland they didn't want to know him. We constantly look to people like Brecht and we look to European or occasionally American icons. The European movement has been dominant in influencing theatre culture and artistic culture as well. Yet in Britain there are important oppositional cultural writers, artists and playwrights--a lot of whom were concentrated in Scotland, and for me Lewis Grassic Gibbon is one of the finest, writing as he did in the 1920s and 1930s when the mass movement generated the most interesting political artistic writing.
A Scots Quair is a panoramic view of what was happening in Scotland, but it is also an intensely personal account of an individual who is born into farm life, who tries to transcend it and can't, and of her son who goes off to join the Communist Party. These ultimately prove to be the two polar forces in A Scots Quair which leaves unresolved the question about what happens to Scotland in the 1930s, where it fails to achieve the Communist ambitions of Red Clydeside yet has no economic future. So it is an intensely political and a wonderfully crafted, poetic work that reconciles the best in art, the best individualistic vision with this extraordinary social panoramic view, one with which the left can wholeheartedly endorse.
PS: What processes are involved in adapting novels such as Lanark and A Scots Quair for the stage?
TG: Well, it's not simply a question of my saying to Alistair, 'Adapt this book, give it back and we'll rehearse it.' There is a great deal of toing and froing and negotiating over the shape of it and how we present it on stage. With both Lanark and the Quair I wanted musicality at the core of the show. There are different answers each time. With Lanark--how do you do visual art on stage? It is not particularly exciting or theatrical to watch two hours of painting on stage--and yet that is the subject matter.
You are also dealing with something more fundamental, which is the creativity of the artist. We made a deliberate choice with Lanark, to use modern music and an operatic form to find a way of getting inside the artist's head because that is tangible. Music works on you emotionally, not in exactly the same way as a piece of visual art, but it evokes a feeling response. Of course, theatre has the text to work with but also has music, movement, choreography, the use of space and design.
PS: Do you see other links between Lanark and A Scots Quair?
TG: Lanark has a lot of the personal concerns and interests that I have. It deals with a huge canvas on which society, politics and personal relationships are painted. I like to think of it as the next book in A Scots Quair. Lanark starts in the late 1940s/early 1950s and traces the postwar development of Scotland, in particular Glasgow. It is almost like, 'Now let's take the story up again.' What has become of these alienated individuals who saw the failure of the great dream of the 1920s, of the revolutions that didn't happen? Then you see a new development in the 1950s and 1960s. Lanark is very clear about it all--the failures continue. One sees the multinationals taking over and this is the great canvas against which Lanark is painted.
The polemic in Lanark is very overt and it's going to be fun to see how audiences respond to that. I look forward to going into a public forum with these speeches. It's a bit like the final speech of Sunset Song. The actors used to fight over who would have the right to do them because they wanted so much to stand up and say these things. There are moments in Lanark that are politically uplifting because you hear things called what they are for the first time--things we are not used to hearing on television.
The other aspect of Lanark is a very personal one. This is about an artist--a kind of portrait of the artist as a young man who becomes increasingly alienated and rebellious. He runs up against all the establishment and institutional nightmares which are reflected in this other world that Lanark inhabits. In some ways Lanark is a bit depressing because it doesn't end the way we would like it to, but that is the history of the 20th century--it hasn't ended the way we would like it to, or not so far anyway.
That isn't to say that it isn't an uplifting book because, although the circumstances in which we have lived have not gone our way there is the human endeavour, the fightback and the struggles.
Lanark is at the Assembly Hall, Edinburgh from 14-27 August
The Cut and The Collection
With his plays The Cut and The Collection, Mike Cullen has brought working class concerns to the centre of the Scottish stage. Mark Brown talked to him about his work, his politics and his move into film making.
Cullen's first stage play, a tragedy of classical Greek proportions called The Cut is partially a reflection of his own experience working in Bilston Glen Colliery in the 1980s. The play is a bitter contemplation of the way in which working class people can direct the exploitation and oppression they suffer against each other.
Similarly, his latest play, The Collection, is a modern tragic drama built around the experience of a debt collector working for a legal 'finance company'. Examining the cut throat relations between the collectors, and those between them and their 'pick ups', it's a desperate story of distorted power relations between working class folk.
'I feel strongly about the redistribution of wealth,' says Cullen. 'I don't agree with individualism over collectiveness. I think there should be collectiveness in society, so that people feel a responsibility for each other.' He has written of his concern over 'the common guilt left over from the Thatcher era, when selfishness flourished under the guise of individuality.'
So is the conflict in his plays a reflection of the way in which Thatcherism distorted people's real interests and real natures? 'Every human being has a different personality, and different personalities will make different choices. They may make a choice for a deeply selfish reason which has nothing to do with their circumstances.'
If the thinking behind The Cut seems somewhat bleak, The Collection, which centres on the hopelessly distorted relations between a male debt collector and his female client, is even closer to the bone. 'The Collection isn't really about debt collectors', Cullen tells me. 'Somebody said that they thought it was about the connection between sex and power... There's some of that in there, but I never saw it as being about that.'
His belief in collectivity has led Cullen into film making in order, in turn, to try to popularise theatre. 'It seems to me that there's a huge untapped audience out there for theatre which is cinemagoers,' he says, adding, with irritation, 'There's this snobbish attitude which still pervades theatre, that says, "We don't want to attract that kind of crowd." it's a middle class value thing.' Theatre prices and lack of government support for the theatre are, he says, also part of the problem, but Cullen believes firmly that the ethos of the theatre has to change if it's to become as popular as the cinema, 'For that to happen you have to offer the audience something closer to their experience.'
With television films Vigilante, for Channel 4, and Farish, for BBC Scotland, in the pipeline, Cullen is also working on a feature film adaptation of The Cut. His move into films was, for all his wish to popularise theatre, also an act of necessity, 'You can't make a living as a theatre writer... In order to survive and to continue to write for the theatre, you have to write other things.'
A writer of hard hitting theatre which exposes the conflict at the heart of society through snapshots of the lives of working class people at the sharp end, Mike Cullen hasn't given up on humanity just yet. 'Okay, I portray things as being bleak and divisive,' he acknowledges. 'But the reason I do that is to make people mad, because I feel mad about it.' Hope for the future, he believes, lies not in an unrealistic optimism, but in precisely the kind of rage we find in the films of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, and, indeed, in his theatre work, 'That's how you come to collectiveness, not through showing people what collectiveness could be like, but by making them mad about the way things are, so that they actually go out and do something about it.'
The Collection is set to play in London later in the year