[Note: this is the complete text of a syndicated interview with Harry Gibson provided to the press to promote the 10th anniversary production of Trainspotting, the play based on Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name.
Gibson wrote the script for the stage adaptation of Trainspotting and directed both the original production and the new production which begins in 2006.
Spike also interviewed Gibson at the time of the original production in 1996: Harry Gibson: Trainspotting: Expletives Repeated]
So 10 years on, why the revival?
HG: Love, I think. I mean, audiences love seeing it, actors love performing it, and I love directing it. I’ve done Glasgow, Toronto, New York, the Australia tour and I reworked it for the Edinburgh Festival, so it felt like stand up comedy in a tent, and for the West End so it could fill a big old fashioned theatre; so this is my seventh time. And I know it’s a special show for the producers because it was ten years ago when they fell in love with it except that Mark Goucher had to look away when the needles came out. Well, they picked it up and put it on the road and got a smash hit and a shelf full of awards, so for them it’s pure nostalgia. So here we go trainspotting again.
How did it go down in New York did they get it?
HG: It upset them. Sympathy for junkies isn’t big on Broadway. And the language is way too bad for uptown folks. But for eight weeks it was a must see for Soho artists and Greenwich Village actors. The movie actor Brian Denehey said to me, “That is the darkest show I have ever seen.” And he’s been to some very dark places. Australia though was the opposite. One guy said to me, “That’s the funniest first ten minutes of a show I ever saw”. They just sat there eating popcorn and laughing like mad. The thing is, the play has a personality like all good plays which changes from cast to cast. Sometimes it’s a black comedy, like the movie, sometimes it goes deeper, really tragic.
Yes, what about the film? I mean, this isn’t the play of the film is it?
HG: This is the play of Irvine Welsh’s original book. I read a first edition and we had it onstage (at The Glasgow Citz’s) nine months later. We thought it would be good for four weeks in the small studio, but on the first night we had queues wrapped around the building and by noon the next day the whole run was sold out. We revived it six months later in a bigger studio and it sold out again. That was the one which Danny Boyle (the movie’s director) and his team came to see, but naturally a play and a film are two different animals. I love the movie. It’s a brilliant caper-film. It reminded me of those Beatles & Monkees films with lads leaping around to music like ‘Hey, hey we’re the Junkees, and we just junky around’. One big difference between the play and the film apart from the fact that the play just uses one set and four actors and you can smell it happening in front of you is that the movie ends up being the hero’s getaway, while the play stays with the trainspotters, left standing in the ruined old Leith railway station waiting for trains that will never come to get them a away from it all. Irvine liked that ending. Truer to life.
So Trainspotting entered the language?
HG: Spotting is everywhere now. In fact language is a big part of Trainspotting’s appeal. People write dissertations about it. The play has 147 cunts. In Edinburgh housing schemes, I explain to people, cunt is a laddish term of endearment. You can say “Y’cunt-ye” to a mate and it’s quite cuddly. You would not call a vagina a cunt; a vagina is (excuse my language) a f*n*y. Translators have some difficulties; I think the play’s been translated into 17 languages now, and I am waiting for the Japanese version because I’m told the Japanese don’t have dirty swearwords; mind you it might be the maddest version ever.
The culture of the production transforms the show; the Icelandic version which I saw in Reykjavik looked like a saga; our hero’s mother appeared out of a mist like a troll, with a giant wooden spoon. In Paris, it was “La Haine” type streetkids, playing around mostly on scaffolding. The Dresden director must have done a lot of very special workshops games on because I don’t remember writing parts for four blue eyed blonde boys or asking them to do a buggery dance; this went on for three hours – but still, it got 17 curtain calls. Trainspotting gets done all over the world: Canada down to Mexico across to New Zealand and up to Hong Kong – every country has its trainspotters. At the moment the National Theatre of Romania is doing it in Cluj.
So you’re not short of a bob or two?
HG: Well, let me put it this way. I wish I’d made is a full-scale musical. I might be rich. As it is, it’s just a small show for studios, so cheques do drop on the doormat from time to time but only small ones. We’re talking the price of dinner. So I have not given up my day job. Which is theatre anyway. People ask me, “What made you do this?”, and the boring answer is that it’s my job.
I do plays and I turn Irvine’s books into plays because he is a writer of foul genius. I’ve done the play versions of five of his novels. The latest one is Porno, the sequel to Trainspotting about Sick Boy’s attempt to become a porn baron, but for the first time, I’ve got a play which no one will touch. I think they think it might be pornographic, and it isn’t….very. I think it’s beautiful. But then I think every show I do is beautiful, however wild and in your face it is. It’s got to be beautiful theatre. Otherwise it’s a mess. I saw some Oxford students do it last year, and they fucked it up so bad I wanted to walk out and weep. I needed much vodka comfort.
Isn’t “in-yer-face” a whole style of theatre now?
HG: So they say. Actually, theatre’s been doing in-yer-face for years. It isn’t about outrageous acts, it really means your actors address the audience directly, they don’t pretend they are being spied on through a glass wall. Audiences really like that. It makes a play more like rock’n’roll. Well, like The Fall’s idea of rock’n’roll – they’re Irv’s favourite band. So it feels rough, but actually its cunning and beautiful, it draws you into a dream just like Shakespeare where a Prologue tells the punters what’s going to happen and the hero opens his heart in soliloquies, and you’re drawn into a Midsummer Night’s Dream, or King Lear’s nightmare; now that’s pretty “in yer-face” – “Out Vile Jelly!”
Defining the arts into movements and schools is an intellectual’s pastime. Like Irvine’s use of language it’s interesting to philologists but to many ordinary punters Trainspotting is just a great dirty book like Lady Chatterley’s Lover or The Naked Lunch. And language makes a great paint stripper. Used like a tool and my actors know exactly when to say “fuck” – it can cut through walls of pretension and prejudice. Scholars have called Irvine’s style “dirty realism” and my style “in-yer- face” but we’re just following our literary and theatrical ancestors to reach people’s hearts and minds, And people keep coming back for more.
On tour, Trainspotting keeps bringing new people into theatres; theatre managers cry out happily, “We’ve never sold so much lager”. Of course, theatres have to make a special arrangements; at the end of the interval at the Citzs we used to send a usher out to ring a bell in the car park, where customers had popped out for a spliff. And staff do find customers in odd places, let’s just say couples have been known to get carried away, round the back of the stalls. Occasionally someone gets carried out by the paramedics or policemen, but this is rare, There have been no riots yet!
How does all this affect the actors?
HG: One or two of the actors did take their research a bit too far. There was some scraping -up off the ground. But we’ve never lost anyone. The competition to act in Trainspotting is fierce, so we can cast people who are not only fine actors but know the lifestyle, We don’t cast innocents.
Have you ever cast anyone famous?
HG: We’ve cast actors who became famous afterwards. Our first Mark Renton was Ewen Bremner who went on to play Spud in the film an is now a wealthy movie star. In the West End our Alison was played by the amazing Michelle Gomez, who you now see on TV a lot she’s the HEAT magazine girl. And when I saw Lord of The Rings, there was one of my Tommies – Billy Boyd! This kind of starspotting makes watching films and TV a bit weird for me me- well everyone in The Business, you want to get into the drama, but then an old friend pops up and punctures the illusion. I mean, Gollum you look into his eyes and you know it’s Andy Serkis! And you go “he was in a show of mine!” Which no one wants to know and you get shushed.
The Sexual Life Of The Camel?
HG: Ah. Yes
Didn’t you bet someone that you could write a play about masturbation?
HG: It was the first night party of Trainspotting and I did get into a conversation about writing a play about anything, and wanking did come up, and I did write and won a bet, which I think was a bottle of malt whisky, or maybe a case, but I can’t remember who I made it with, so I never collected! And the play was given a reading at The Royal Court which Andy “Gollum” Serkis was in, but it’s never been professionally staged, which may be because people think it pornographic, which it sort of is…
In a beautiful way?
HG: Exactly! Next question.
How have things changed since 1995, in terms of the drugs scene. Will this new production still strike a chord?
HG: It was 1995, but Irvine was going back to the 80s, when heroin-use surged in Edinburgh and it was Thatcher’s Britain and getting messed up and wasted was like defiant and political. And then getting on an E was the way to love. For a century every different drug-craze was hailed as the way to paradise, or the doors of paradise or the road of excess leading to the palace of wisdom, or just a great way to celebrate being rich or escape being poor hashish, acid, speed, coke, E, and you can go back to champagne cocktails for toffs, absinthe for poets, opium for factory workers, laudanum for stressed gentle folk, mother’s ruin gin for ruined mothers and urchins.
In Trainspotting, the book and play, we’re clear about the thrills and the buzz of defiance, but it’s like William Burroughs, the American junky novelist who tried everything and especially enjoyed morphine, he realised something was wrong; he said, “I spent two years gazing at my foot”. He got tunnel vision, and was disappearing, but then he started to see the light, the bigger picture what he saw as a great conspiracy. Well, in Trainspotting, you see that the light at the end of the tunnel is the light of an oncoming train. You can’t leave the theatre unshocked. Now I think that the whole Trainspotting phenomenon has been part of a gradual turnaround of opinion, at least ( and maybe most important because we write the copy for society) among intellectuals and the mediafolk
We are more grown up about drugs. We’re less inclined to idealise or demonise drugs. Society as a whole is not less inclined to TAKE them because humans have always taken drugs, we might even have become human by doing so but we hear less bullshit about drugs being either instant death or the road to excess leading to the palace of wisdom. In truth, the road of witless excess normally leads to the A & E room and the grave. Our realism is good.
Drugs are something you probably should try so long as you don’t have to. If you have to take drugs, it’s time for a reality check. As a drug worker in The Gorbals in Glasgow told me “If you have a life, you can do some drugs; if you don’t have a life, drugs will fill the vacuum”. As the careers of Irvine Welsh and Harry Gibson show, the palace is reached by getting education. My experience says, “Don’t do drugs till you’ve learned the Latin”.
Much more about Irvine Welsh is at irvinewelsh.com