by Chris Dolan

SRB Diary II

September 15, 2014 | by Chris Dolan

There’s a story David Hayman tells audiences. He and I talked after an independence conference at the end of last year and he suggested that I write a piece for him on the subject of independence. Then he says he hears nothing from me for several months, gives me a nudge and over a weekend I write a script.

I wish. David is not only a terrific actor, he’s a gifted storyteller too.

The development of The Pitiless Storm was a deal more problematic than that. It involved numerous discussions over many pints of Guinness. What exactly did we want to say about the referendum? How were we going to say it? Another round? Who should be involved? Nuts or crisps?

By the time we’re actually up and running there are controversies with local councils and Telegraph journalists, visits from former shadow cabinet ministers, last-minute script changes, invitations to extend the run, tears, coffees instead of Guinness. To put the record straight, here is the writer’s scrapbook of the journey.

BEFORE THE STORM (October – June)

Working with a powerful and acclaimed actor and director, the founder of the international charity Spirit Aid, and a prominent opinion-former was always going to be exciting. Or terrifying. David and I had worked together before – he voiced my BBC documentary An Anarchist’s Story, and we have been collaborating on a film script. But this was going to be proper hot-housing. Our positions on the referendum were not identical. I had come late to the movement; David has been an activist for many years. I changed my opinion (thanks, mainly, to the arguments of my weans, one studying medicine, the other international relations and history – I didn’t stand a chance) because it became clear that Westminster will never deliver what Scotland needs or what the majority of its people wants. The Labour project has failed not only Scotland but the whole of the UK. At least we can fix it here.

There was a further complication: I have never written an openly political play. In fact I have an allergy to them, squirming in theatres thinking, I’ll sign the petition, go on the demo, but please don’t make me sit here watching something I already agree with. But this was different. Scotland is on the verge of a momentous decision – surely theatre has a part to play in that?

David and I were very focussed from the get-go on what we wanted our play to do. Certain groups are reportedly in danger of automatically voting No. Under 25s, women, and middle-aged male Labour supporters. Didn’t take a genius to know which demographic David and I should tackle. We had to deliver something more than a simple rallying cry, and monologues don’t lend themselves to agit-prop. This had to be a piece about an individual. We had to bring him to life, make that life bigger and more textured than simply why he decides to vote Yes. Our political decisions are not made on the basis of policy alone. Background, family and friends, our experiences, even our spirituality and sexuality play under the surface of seemingly rational decisions.

So we hit upon the idea of a trade unionist, towards the end of his career, being given an award for his commitment and solidarity, but realising that what he had set out to do as a young man was further than ever from his grasp. The first lines that came to me for Bob Cunningham’s speech were: ‘Why are you here? Everything I ever believed in is in retreat; everything I feared is on the rise.’

I worked on drafts; rehearsed sections with my students at Glasgow Caledonian University. David is right in that some of the bits finally came together over a weekend in March and the draft he received the following Monday had most of the elements we needed for a show. David’s son, David Hayman Jnr came on board as a director (and hats off to him for dealing so authoritatively with two old codgers who think they know it all). Then, as ever in Scottish theatre, we hit the road under-funded, under-rehearsed, the writer still making stuff up on the hop.

STORM BREWING (July)

We opened in Rutherglen on Friday 25 July, ragged edges everywhere. The working title was forced on me at the last minute: a nod to David’s King Lear at the Citz. David’s entrance as Bob wasn’t going to work in most venues the way I’d envisaged. A couple of key turning points would need an extra voice, and David Jnr came up with some last-minute snazzy lighting effects. We’d hoped to use a piece of Martyn Bennett’s music but couldn’t clear the rights in time. I suggested that, as a stop gap, I record a piece of fiddle music. Nicola Benedetti I ain’t but there’s a storyline in the play of Bob’s ex-wife learning to play violin. The make-do-and-mend solution kind of worked and we kept it throughout the run. 

David – busy with TV and two plays for the Fringe – wasn’t yet ‘off the book’ and had to rely on strategically placed notes. My nerves were in bits… But I hadn’t taken into account the Hayman factor. People turn up to see him wherever and whatever the play. He gave a stunning performance. It was the first time I’d seen Bob Cunningham come to life before my eyes. At the end the audience gave a four-minute standing ovation, then settled down for a conversation with the star of the show. David had decided, given the importance and timing of the play, to follow each performance with a question and answer session. We knew that could pose problems and indeed, on the first outing there was a speech from someone who was clearly a plant from the Better Together campaign. Fine. It made the discussion edgier and trenchant, which after all was the point.

STORMS AND TEACUPS (August)

Free speech and open debate became murkier matters as soon as we reached Edinburgh. Playing from the first to packed houses we got involved in two rammies conducted in the press. Argyll and Bute Council suddenly dropped all publicity for the show. Whether because of the subject matter or good old fashioned inefficiency, and whether or not Labour or Better Together had a nefarious hand in it, were disputed in the Scotsman, the Herald, and Sunday Herald over the entire first week. Halfway through another squabble broke out. Jenny Hjul, Daily Telegraph columnist, blogged contemptuously about ‘luvvie nationalists’ moving in next door to her. When David understandably objected Hjul upped the ante in her next column.

All good knockabout stuff and free publicity but the show was selling out anyway. Still, David had to get up on stage each day while people who knew neither him nor our play were calling us liars, and David in particular ‘the enemy’ and a cybernat. David couldn’t tweet even if his feathers were ruffled, which they weren’t. But why is it when Yes voters say anything, in this case in self-defence, we’re accused of being trolls? In fact, a friend of David Jnr’s told us that Twitter had been full of pretty scary insults and threats against us since before we opened. Social media inhabits some lower level of Dante’s hell. In my experience the independence debate has been open, passionate certainly, but serious and sincere on both sides. Throughout David’s post-show debates we’ve had Yesses and Nos, switherers, don’t knows, interested non-Scots, Scots exiles without votes, all engaging in civilised conversation.

Some folks, though, prefer just to listen. Had Jack Straw been tipped off that he got a mention in the play? Bob, nearing his nadir, spits out a litany of demons, and the Foreign Secretary at the time of the Iraq war gets it in the neck. Give him his due, Straw sat through the debate, by all accounts inscrutably, and put a tenner in the collection David had organised for the people of Gaza. If our purpose, since the day we met at the conference nearly a year ago, was to get people talking, maybe even thinking, it was working. In the theatre, in the cafes outside, among politicians and in the newspapers.

The Assembly Rooms had programmed us next to Alan Bissett’s The Pure, The Dead, and The Brilliant, a wise and wisecracking proper bit of agit-prop with hilarious performances. Perhaps just as well. It’s interesting how a play develops over time. In the last week of The Pitiless Storm, and as we neared the referendum itself, a sizeable percentage of the audience were – in a good way – reduced to tears. Not out of a sense of impending defeat. Perhaps the opposite. The referendum has always been about both the head and the heart. What we’ve lost, what we may yet lose – whichever way the vote goes. Who we are, and our relationships with those around us. If, at the end of the play Bob Cunningham gives his answer, he raises questions for the rest of us. Questions not just about policies and statehood but about what it is to be a nation, how we struggle towards justice and decency in our government and in ourselves.

ANY PORT IN A STORM (September)

Naturally I don’t read reviews, so I simply cannot account for the fact that I know there have been to date exactly nine very positive crits, six ecstatic ones, and a couple of mean-spirited wee sneers. The Herald managed to dismiss four independence plays, between them embracing such Scots talents as Elaine C. Smith, George Gunn, Libby McArthur, Jimmy Chisholm, Bissett and Hayman, in a throwaway foot-of-the-page review by someone who was never going to listen to what any of us was trying to say. Partisan? Well, it’s a free country.

The Fringe had heartened us, but as we set off to play pre-booked venues from Inverness to Dunoon, we were a bit sad too. We always knew Pitiless had a short shelf-life. Basically it would die on the night of the 17th. But the minute I finish this I’m translating the script into Spanish. Catalonia votes – unofficially as far as Madrid is concerned – on 9 November.  Bilbao is pushing for a referendum of its own. Whatever our result  here both the issues and the process are of significance to others. Australia’s showing interest too, constitutional matters being of ongoing concern. So it’s not the end of something, but just the beginning. Because a chance of renewal is rare, profound, moving and crucial.

From this Issue

The James Trilogy

by Joseph Farrell

Guilty Pleasure

by Jennie Renton

The Case for Culture

by Cairns Craig

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