James Kelman Season at The Arches

the meaning of life, if you like

Feature by Philippa Cochrane | 08 Oct 2007

The last time a full play by James Kelman was produced in Scotland was 12 years ago. The last time one of his plays was staged by one of the country's major theatres was in 1991. Stop and think about that for a minute. This is one of the country's leading writers, winner of the Booker prize and peer of other well known and well regarded writers such as Alisdair Gray and Tom Leonard. He is famous for writing about everyman figures, down on their luck, in the broad vernacular of his home town, Glasgow. If there is anywhere in the world that Kelman's work should be seen on stage, it is Scotland.

And yet he had given up on trying to find an audience, or more accurately, a theatre, for his plays. As Kelman told The Skinny, "That's the problem with theatre, you need to have the input of another individual or individuals, it's not the same as writing prose fiction or poetry, which you can do and you can carry all through yourself. When you're involved in theatre or any form of drama, you have to rely on other people and if you don't get that input you don't have the motivation to pull a thing through." But in the last couple of years he had made a decision to complete his plays, knowing that while he might not find a place to have them produced at home, there would be interest elsewhere such as Ireland and America, and Germany for his radio dramas.

But last year, Arches Artistic Director Andy Arnold featured a Kelman piece in his Spend a Penny series of monologues staged in toilet cubicles. Enthused, he approached Kelman to see if there were any suitable full length plays available. The result is an entire Kelman season at The Arches which opens with the premiere of a brand new work, Herbal Remedies, on 16 October.

No surprise then that Arnold is definitive about Kelman's importance as a playwright. "To me he is Scotland's only writer who you could genuinely say is in the same vein as the likes of Pinter and Beckett and as a result of that, I think it's work that should be presented." The action of Herbal Remedies certainly bears comparison with Beckett. Two men, one of whom only has one leg, are chewing the fat in a park oblivious to the woman who is asleep on the bench beside them. When she wakes up, all three characters find themselves in the depths of a power struggle. Arnold contends that what makes Herbal Remedies good theatre is "the relationship between the three of them, you go on this journey with them even though there is no actual narrative as such, because the dialogue is so sharp and very funny, you're totally drawn into it."

While Kelman himself acknowledges that there are points of similarity between his piece and Waiting for Godot, he feels that it comes from a particular way of working, rather than any specific influence of one playwright's work on another. "When we talk about three actors on stage, or two actors and one comes in, I suppose that it's a kind of association which could be made with a great many plays and it's maybe simply because the way I like to operate on stage is in real time, in the way Beckett usually works." Specifically, Kelman feels that his approach is more traditional than much of the new drama found in theatre at the moment, which he sees as being shaped by the demands of a televisual format with short seven minute scenes cut for ad breaks. Kelman sees his work as the anithesis to this. "I like to develop something as I would in my prose and that becomes a sustained piece that originates by itself and through itself," he explains.

Whatever the play's antecedents, Arnold is confident of its place in the pantheon. "The vernacular, the rhythm, the lyricism of it is very much Glaswegian," he says. "But it has this universality of theme, the meaning of life if you like." He is equally upbeat about its companion piece in the season, They Make These Noises. The play portrays a young couple, one of them from Glasgow, one of them English. "It's a romantic piece in a way," explains Arnold. "But with a darkness to it, you're not quite sure what is going on, but in many ways it is quite a delightful piece, very different from Herbal Remedies, they share a similarity of style, but they contrast with one another to fit well together."

The last word must remain with James Kelman. The opportunity to see two of his previously unstaged plays in a Scottish theatre renowned for its commitment to edgy and iconoclastic work, should provide one of the theatre events of the year. But as the grand old man of Glaswegian letters stresses, "they are both comedies, it's not a case of there goes Kelman again, you need a university degree to listen to him."

Herbal Remedies is at the Arches from Tues 16th to Sat 27th Oct, at 7.30pm. Tickets are £10/£6.
They Make These Noises will be part of the November programme at the Arches