Cora Bissett on her Gagarin Way revival
Following her success at this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe, we chat to Cora Bisset about her Dundee Rep revival of Gregory Burke’s sensational debut play, Gagarin Way
It’s hard to put into words the effect that Gagarin Way, the first play from a then-unknown Fife playwright called Gregory Burke, had on Scottish theatre after its debut at the Traverse Theatre during the Fringe in 2001.
Set in the immediate aftermath of an ill-advised and poorly-thought-out heist, which sees two disillusioned workers kidnap a middle class executive, the play delved deep into the psychological and political aftermath of the loss of industry in Fife. Burke’s characters were simultaneously familiar and empathetic; proud, hardworking communist men, driven to extremes from years of working hard and following the dream, only to find themselves in poorly paid and dead-end jobs, living in towns decimated by the end of various industries.
The BBC dubbed it “the most talked about show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe”, and Burke, became the coveted 'overnight sensation' of the year. Other rave reviews and sell-out shows followed, a transfer to the National Theatre in London was arranged, and, during its Edinburgh run, one teenage theatre fangirl (yours truly) was even allowed to skive school for the day to see it.
The play is an enduring portrait of men under siege, a scathing edict on the irreversible effects of globalism, the failures of capitalism and also of communism. A rich tapestry of rage and regret, dripping with machismo, it is – at first glance – an odd choice for Cora Bissett to direct. Fresh from her own hit at the Fringe (her autobiographical gig theatre piece, What Girls Are Made Of, which was also performed at the Traverse), Burke’s play is an unlikely follow-up project for the award-winning director.
Approached by Dundee Rep’s Andrew Panton, who went to the same youth theatre as Bissett, she admits that the play is an unusual choice for her, but Panton wanted to see the play revived by a female team. “[Panton] was very keen to have a female director, and we’ve made it an all-female creative team as well, not [to] be gender fascist about it, just to give it a different energy, just to bring very different perspectives and creative ways in to approaching that text. So, it was a really good idea, and I’m very happy that he did.”
But just underneath the surface of the play, according to Bissett, is a story about a group of men in very big trouble.
“Scratch the surface and all of those characters are men in crisis really,” Bissett explains. “So, you’ve got two very diametrically opposed people involved in this big act together, for very different reasons. I think one man is doing it for a noble purpose, if misplaced, and the other guy just wants a kick, and then there’s the young student character. There’s men at various stages of their life, who really haven’t found purpose in any of the places they’ve been looking and that’s very distressing. For me, it’s a very fragile play, despite the machismo; just beneath the surface [are] four people who really haven’t found much of anything.”
‘This was written 18 years ago, and for the people that lived in these small towns that industry has left behind, not a hell of a lot has changed’ – Cora Bissett
Named after a real street in Lumphinnans in West Fife, which was once well-known for its communist population. Gagarin Way was originally written in 1997 while the UK was in the death throes of a Tory government under John Major. While two decades have passed since then, and we’ve gone from New Labour to a coalition government, back to a Conservative majority, the similarities between our past and our present are clear. As a result, the play maintains an eerie similarity to the late 1990s, from characters working zero-hour contracts, to trickle-down economics. What, if anything has changed since it was staged?
“I think it’s striking that the play made such an impact 18 years ago," says Bissett. “I did toy with the idea of perhaps placing it in the now, but really, we have to reflect on that this was written 18 years ago, and for the people that lived in these small towns, and industry has left them behind, not a hell of a lot has changed. Working conditions for people and the transient-ness of contracts has, if anything, just worsened, so I think it’s actually more prescient.”
Although the play was undoubtedly a success, eventually being translated in 20 languages, it has rarely reappeared on the Scottish stage save for two separate revivals; one by the Comedians' Theatre Company during the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and another, better-known revival by Rapture Theatre Company in 2011. The burden of restaging such a well-regarded play is heavy, but luckily for Bissett, she has two tricks up her sleeve. The first is that she is from Fife, so she knows the area and its people well. The second is, despite having given Burke work before Gagarin Way was produced (she paid him £150 to write a piece for her Citizone project a few months before the Fringe), she’s never actually seen the play staged before.
She explains: “I remember Gagarin Way being on, I think I’d maybe just moved to London, or for some reason I wasn’t around. But I remember hearing news of this piece, and what an impact it was making and what a new voice Gregory was, so I’m really coming to it as a blank canvas, which is maybe good in a way.”
Bissett’s unfamiliarity with the play seems to have proven to be helpful, as with no memory of previous productions she is free to do as she likes with this one. But what does Burke think of her reviving his breakout work? “I was about to contact him, just to touch base, because we know each other from way back," says Bissett. “But he contacted me! Which was lovely. He said, ‘I’m delighted you’re taking it on’, and he said, ‘Look, I’m not precious at all, change what you want, mess it around’, which was incredibly generous of him, but slightly unnecessary because the play is brilliantly tightly structured. It works so brilliantly well.”
One of the reasons why the play works just as well now as it did in 2001 is what’s happening in Scotland right now. With industries collapsing and the high street changing rapidly, communities have struggled to adapt to the changes, which is something that Bissett has witnessed, particularly in the small towns of Fife where Gagarin Way’s characters are from.
“I’m from Glenrothes, and my parents only moved out of there two years ago, and they said that the town is feeling quite ghostly, and the same in Kirkcaldy. Just so much of the shops in the high street have shut down, industries have collapsed. There’s lots of different reasons; people have moved on and not settled down and brought up families there, you just don’t have that regeneration and fresh blood going into the town.
“And then, of course, industries move and are sold to others and they can have people working more cheaply, and that just decimates a town in one swoop. So, I think the play is not a historic piece, it speaks to right now, particularly, those small towns in Fife.”
Gagarin Way, Dundee Rep, 16 Oct – 3 Nov, various times