Kieran Hurley, Liam Hurley, Gav Prentice, Julia Taudevin and Drew Wright have joined forces to create ‘Rantin’, a show about Scotland. Rantin is produced in conjunction with The Arches and the National Theatre of Scotland, and is being toured all over the country in professional theatres, arts centres and town halls. As Kieran (writer of Fringe hits Chalk Farm and BEATS) and his colleagues tumbled towards Wick in their company van, Dominic Di Rollo caught up with him on a dodgy phone line to ask a few questions about this latest project.
Dom: You’ve probably done this a few times now, but I wondered if you would describe what Rantin is.
Kieran: Nae bother man. It’s a ceilidh-play, and when we say ceilidh-play, we mean the traditional sense. You’re right, we have said this a few times now, I’m well aware of myself saying this in the company of everyone in the van who’s heard me say this many, many times. I suddenly feel quite self conscious. I’ve got Drew in the front going “Boooring.” Drew says to tell you it’s a gangster rap opera… but it’s not that at all. It’s a ceilidh-play. And when we say ceilidh-play, we mean ceilidh as in opposed to some sort of wedding-based, tartan line dancing… we mean, in the traditional sense, a sort of gathering, where the community gathers together to hear songs and stories about itself in some way. We describe it as somewhere between a gig and a theatre show and a gathering of people in a living room. We use songs from the Scottish folk tradition, they’ve either been rearranged or rewritten slightly, and there are other contemporary songs that we use, some of which come from an existing repertoire and some which have been created for the show specifically. But there’s also different stories that we tell, different scenes and dramatic scenarios, some of which we return to, and others we don’t, interwoven together.
Dom: Why a living room?
Kieran: It’s not so much a living room – it does definitely look like a touring theatre set. There is an audience, seating bank and everything. But it does look a bit like a living room in that it’s sort of cosy and informal, really. We wanted it to feel like…
[At this point, the phones lose connection]
Dom: [After Kieran’s profuse apologies] It’s all right. It’s quite apt actually that you guys are all in the van, touring across the country as we speak.
Kieran: Totally. There was really no other time to be able to get us, I’m afraid.
Dom: You’re literally travelling every day then?
Kieran: More or less. Not every day. We get the occasional day off. We’ve got a day off in Orkney at the end of this week, which will be lovely. Some days we’ll have a travel day without a show, if we’re going a particularly long distance, but today it’s three and a half hours to Wick and then a show in the evening… So where did I lose you?
Dom: You were talking about the living room.
Kieran: Well each of the different stories that we encounter, the structural idea of the show is that these are stories that happen outside, now, across Scotland as we speak. That’s what we’re asking the audience to imagine. And so for each of those different characters that we meet… Scotland, our Scottishness, means something quite different to each of them. So really the cumulative effect, we hope, is that it becomes about the plurality of nationhood. The multiple, different perspectives that make up a nation. There are almost too many differences going on for us to ever be able to pin them down in the show, and that’s what it’s about – the incompleteness, that fracture, is part of what it’s about.
Dom: I found that idea incredibly interesting because when we think about Scottishness at the moment, certainly as we come closer to the referendum, there’s all this talk about making a collective decision for our future, in a sort of singular sense, and I found it remarkable that you’ve decided to focus on plurality and diversity.
Kieran: I think that plurality, that diversity, is an important part of thinking about what that collective identity is. There was a really lovely audience response where someone just noted that essentially what we’re saying is that “if you’re here, you’re in.” That’s one of the really exciting things about Scotland at the moment, is that we have an opportunity to really think about what we mean when we talk about the people of Scotland. And it’s really exciting to think about that in a genuinely 21st century outward-looking global way. And to think about all the different identities that might contain. You know? Rather than thinking about it in terms of heritage and ethnicity alone.
Dom: Completely. That’s the thing with this particular brand of nationalism, or nationalistic feeling…
Kieran: It’s civic, rather than ethnic.
Dom: It doesn’t have that jingoistic element to it. It’s about society…
Kieran: It’s a civic concern.
Dom: You talked about audience response. Have you noticed a marked difference in the way audiences receive and engage with the play, in different places?
Kieran: In many ways you get that wherever you go. I toured England with BEATS towards the end of last year and it was just totally different wherever you went. On some level you notice it more with this show because we have such a direct relationship with our audience. They feel really present in the room with us. It feels like a shared space. And sometimes it’s just to do with the demographic of the audience as opposed to a difference in the community. But it’s hard to tell. Generally the response has been just really enthusiastic, which is obviously exactly what you want. It’s been lovely when we’ve had an opportunity to talk to the audience after and to speak with them about their responses.
Dom: So are you doing a lot of post-show discussions?
Kieran: There’s a few formal post-show discussions along the way where the venue can accommodate it. We did one at the Woodend Barn in Banchory, and it was magic. It was a really cracking discussion. And sometimes people were writing their responses to the show on twitter or getting in touch with the NTS with their thoughts. It really feels like it’s doing its job of kicking up and kick starting and contributing to a lot of discussion about who we are, where we’re going, where we might have come from, what are the lines that join us. You know?
Dom: A point that a review, I think it was The Scotsman, made was that what it seems to be doing is linking Scotland’s familiar past with its fast changing present.
Kieran: Yeah, and that’s a lovely observation from John [Darley]. I mean I guess it is an aspect of the show. Those of us that have made the show are very aware that we’re all different, we’ve all got our different backgrounds, but we’re also from a broadly similar demographic, a similar generation. And so for us, there is an underlying thing in the show of our generation not just looking at the present, and not just looking forward, but also looking back to the Scotland that we’ve inherited. There’s a lot in the show about industrialisation, and the legacy of that.
Dom: Well, I was going to ask about how much this project has been influenced by John McGrath and David MacLennan and what they did with 7:84.
Kieran: I started making the show as part of a development project that the NTS and the Arches were doing. I’d made some work with music, like BEATS, and I was interested in exploring how I might use music in a more full way, both to engender a sense of community in the room and to help tell a story. I got Gav in the room initially, and then the others, and that quickly turned us on to the idea of the ceilidh-play and that particular form in the Scottish theatrical language. That’s a form that owes so much to 7:84 and to Wildcat, and so it almost became a very explicit question at the start – what might a 21st century, political ceilidh-play for Scotland look like? How might we take that form that was used so well by McGrath and his colleagues, and what might we be able to use from it? What might we do differently? How might our political times necessitate a different use of that form in some way? You know? And that idea of trying to pick up that form and to use it on our own terms is explicitly what we’re doing.
I guess what I’m saying is that the influence of John McGrath, David MacLennan, Dave Anderson, isn’t incidental. We’re really explicitly aware of it from the start. We even have our own little homage to “The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil” towards the beginning of the play. “Cheviot” opens with a character called Bill Paterson saying “This is a story with a beginning, a middle, and as yet no end.” And that really underlines the agitprop narrative of that piece of theatre. You know? “This is what has happened. This is now what is happening, and the future is unwritten because you are all agents of social change.” And that’s brilliant, but our show opens with “This is a story with multiple beginnings, an abundance of middles, and no clear ends.” Because, while our show has a political discourse, it doesn’t have the same clear, singular narrative. It’s about conflict and contradiction and plurality as much as anything else.
Dom: So in that sense, it’s about encouraging discussion rather than offering a point of view?
Kieran: Yeah absolutely, and I think there is an implicit point of view in there as well. We make certain political statements about certain things, but it doesn’t have the same clarity or agitprop point of view. That’s for a number of reasons really, but I think it’s a consequence of the political times that we’re making work in. But I’ll leave that for other people to make their mind up about.
The structural idea of the show is that these are stories that happen outside, now, across Scotland as we speak. That’s what we’re asking the audience to imagine. And so for each of those different characters that we meet, Scotland and Scottishness mean something quite different to each of them”
Dom: You mentioned demographics and the effort to represent narratives and stories from all across Scotland. What was your process towards investigating these different demographics?
Kieran: The first thing to say is the thing that we’re super aware of is that we can’t represent everything. So in trying to represent lots of different experiences and points of view, the real thing that we’re saying is that we’re not going to be able to represent them all because a nation is too big to encapsulate in the 90-minute theatre show – of course there’s loads that’s missing.
Dom: Was there a method or research process that you engaged in to try and tailor your performance to the towns that you’re going to? Did you talk to locals or…
Kieran: A lot of the characters are standards and stay the same, and they come from our own experiences as well as wider research about different life experiences within Scotland. So there’s a character that’s a refugee, and that’s not our experience but there’s a lot of us that have done a lot of work with asylum seekers and refugees and so have access to communities so that we were able to build up and authentic representation of that experience through research and through empathy, really. I was saying in the post-show discussion in Banchory the other day how empathy is the most important quality that you can have as a playwright… if you try to really listen to your subjects and write it as empathetically as you can. And that’s how we wrote the standard characters, if you like. But there is one character, whose story we change to fit each town that we go to. I won’t say much about her character, but her job necessitates that she travels. She shows up in a new town every day and tries to get to grips with it, and so we change her story so that she is in the town that we are also playing in. So we have to spend a bit of time – Julia in particular – each day when we roll into a new town, wandering around the area, getting to grips with the local geography, rewriting that scene a little and then relearning it for the night.
Dom: Since you’re now in the middle of the run, have you been surprised by the plurality of cultures and diversity that you’ve experienced?
Kieran: I think the Scotland that we represent in the show is probably inherently more diverse than the Scotland we meet in the theatre, but that’s due to a whole bunch of socioeconomic and cultural factors around who does and doesn’t come to the theatre. That said, we are still meeting quite diverse audiences as we go. It’s just that our show ranges from a supremely wealthy venture capitalist to a Palestinian refugee on a bus. Neither of those people are coming to a small scale theatre show. We are reaching quite a diverse audience, I think, by virtue of going to lots of different places. And it is interesting noting how those different audiences respond. But there’s a discrepancy between the diversity of the theatre-audience and that represented in the show, which is good, ’cause that’s what the show should be doing – trying to represent a level of diversity beyond that reflected in the room. That’s the idea.
Dom: You’ve started at The Arches, and then you’ve gone out and left the central belt. Do you reckon that up north and in more rural areas there needs to be more theatre, or at least more bespoke theatres? What do you think of the state of affairs for theatre in these more remote areas?
Kieran: A friend got in touch on Twitter to say “I think it’s really great that you’re taking the work to places that don’t get a huge amount of theatre.” I think it is really great. I think it’s an important thing for a national theatre of Scotland to be doing. A lot of the places that we are going to, that us Glasgow and Edinburgh guys might think of as small rural areas, have really great arts centres. And then in other places we’re playing in a place that’s a little more like a town hall. So there is a range. In terms of places that could use a bit more arts provision, either for touring work or for work made in the area, I don’t think that’s limited to rural areas. So much of the Scotland in our show is the Scotland of the small-town, post-industrial central belt. We are as interested in playing to those audiences as we are in the highlands. Both are just as important.
Dom: You mentioned that you think this travelling around the nation is something a national theatre should be doing. The NTS is always professing its status as sort of a nomadic company in the way it operates. It doesn’t have a building, and so on. How instrumental have the National Theatre of Scotland been in this project?
Kieran: Completely. They’ve booked the tour. They’ve organised that. They have a whole strategy around that that’s completely beyond anything I’ve been able to engage with before, because they are a national company with a remit for the whole nation. So in terms of the instrumental, in terms of the pragmatics of getting a far-flung, far reaching tour of Scottish venues they have been completely instrumental. That’s their gig, and they’re great at it. They’re really good at it because they’ve done this kind of thing before. Even in recent years. It’s a really radical model for a national theatre, one that has been proven successful, and one that is entirely appropriate for the 21st century.
Rantin is currently touring Scotland and will end its tour at Paisley Museum on March 1st.
More information can be found at the National Theatre of Scotland’s website here.
Dominic Di Rollo