T hree years ago, I was on the dingiest train in the U.K., and it was packed with Scottish people. Many were shouting, babies were crying, and tempers were flaring. I finally managed to fight my way to a seat by the window. A boy was sitting on his mother’s lap next to me, and while he was screeching and pulling hair and ripping up paper, I was trying to look out the window at the stretches of landfill and suburbia rolling by, smothered by grey clouds overhead. The seven-year-old, after getting tired of annoying his mom, turned to me.
“Wharr ye off ta?”
“Wharrr ye off ta?”
“Wharrrrrrrr ye off ta?”
“Oh, um, Edinburgh.”
“What d’ye want ta go ta Edinburgh fer?” he asked incredulously.
I don’t really need to tell you about the rest of that train ride, because I want to tell you about Trainspotting, directed by Joel Burford, adapted by Harry Gibson and based on the novel by Irvine Welsh. But that trip serves as a good picture of the Scottish to the outsider: you can’t understand them, you can’t ignore them, and you should think twice about going to Edinburgh. It’s a gloomy place.
It’s been a while since I saw the movie, and I’ve never read the novel, but that didn’t stop me from having preconceptions. The movie’s currency is “coolness,” reflected by the posters pasted around campus and all over Facebook. But the play is not cool, because drugs, let’s face it, aren’t cool. “We really tried to stay away from the stylized,” said Daniel Sorger, who plays Tommy. So while Burford held on to the “dark comedy” aspect of the novel, he did away with the romanticization of heroin that made the film so successful.
And that makes the play excellent. It’s an attempt to bring home the life of Scottish junkies, and it’s an honest attempt. But it’s also more than that. The energy of the actors and the meticulous directing style produces a finished story with a very raw dynamic. Expect hilarious moments, but expect the awkward and painful reality of life on smack in one of the gloomiest cities in the world.
The actors were astounding. With a four-person cast, no stage hands, and simple props, they transformed the Theatre’s unusual stage set-up into a Scottish reality. Perfect accents, relentless acting, and vivid storytelling were key ingredients for the most tantalizing play at McGill you’ll see in a while. “We watched a lot of documentaries and read a lot of William S. Burroughs,” Burford said. After perfecting the Scottish accent, the cast created original characters with the ability to draw in the audience. Through great storytelling and all-too-real movements, their characters were able to sketch the city and the life that they had chosen.
Obviously, there were kinks. I almost wish Burford were more liberal with the script; some parts really needed to be cut out. One scene, for example, was a weird story of the three junkies going to some kind of festival, which turned into an extremely strange party of rubbing each other’s nipples. Don’t ask me.
These were mostly problems of language; Burford consciously sacrificed clarity for setting. A play set in Edinburgh is going to be hard to comprehend, and trying to understand the life of a junkie is, as Burford put it, “foreign to most people.”
The final scene also leaves the audience with loose threads. I’ve never let a lack of resolution bother me, but ending a play by leaving the audience confused (Wait…who are they kicking? And why are they pissing on him?) is not the best way to go. Again, my problem is with the certain choices that Gibson made and not with the performance; the kicking and the pissing were very well executed.
And if you’ve seen the posters and you’re confused about the Choose Life part, don’t worry. It’s not just sensationalist; it pertains to the play more than it does to recent campus events. As Martin Law, who plays Marco, the central character, explained, “If you Google ‘choose life’ you get Trainspotting scripts, rather than certain McGill societies.” The most famous quote from the film (“Ah choose not to choose life, ah choose somethin’ else….”) is essential to the play. It’s the junkie’s rationalization of his choices, but it’s also an acknowledgment of the inhumanity and amorality that he lives through every day.
Then again, if you do choose to see Trainspotting, be prepared for a possible moral assault. Aside from the normative gender roles, the disrespect, and the hateful speech, you’ll see dead babies, people kicking pregnant women, and ruined lives.
But the play is more than piss, blood, puke, and verbal abuse blended into a nasty immoral smoothie. A kick in the gut, a punch to the face, a disgusting toilet bowl, syringes, and puke-buckets – all these are the parts that make the whole. According to Gibson, the play becomes a “rough sketch of a rough life”: it’s an unresolved study of some fucked-up people. It’s also a visceral blend that won’t just make you laugh – it will tantalize, shock, and engage.
Trainspotting plays at Players’ Theatre November 18-21 and 25-28 at 8 p.m.