“We’ve Been Courteous!” ZANI Interviews Irvine Welsh & Dean Cavanagh About Their New Play.

Written by Matteo Sedazzari
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Irvine Welsh & Dean Cavanagh ( no strangers to ZANI) are premiering a new theatre play called ‘Performers’ at the Edinburgh Festival this summer.

Welsh & Cavanagh have collaborated on various writing projects since the late 1990’s and ‘Performers’ is their second theatre play together. ‘Babylon Heights’, a tale about the little people who were hired to play Munchkins in the Wizard Of Oz, premiered in San Francisco in 2006 and went on to be performed in Dublin, Los Angeles, Auckland and Sidney. One of the performances in Dublin was picketed for allegedly making fun of “height challenged” people but the protestors were invited in and found nothing offensive to their sensibilities. In fact, they rather enjoyed the experience and commented that it was ‘empowering’ in its attitude to little people.

With ‘Performers” Welsh & Cavanagh have chosen another iconic film to explore, this time the cult, counter cultural 1970 film ‘Performers’ that starred James Fox, Mick Jagger and Johnny Shannon and caused a wave of controversy on its release. Welsh & Cavanagh focus on the casting process for the film and zero in on two fictional London villains who agree to audition.

From ‘Sometimes They Go To Eleven’, “The story of Performance seems at first blush to be a planetary alignment for the ages. It’s 1968 and Edinburgh born wild child writer/painter Donald Cammell surveys his list of close friends that not only include a brace of Rolling Stones – Brian Jones & Mick Jagger – but also their muse Anita Pallenberg, England’s actor du jour James Fox and cinematographer Nicholas Roeg, now chomping at the bit to try his hand at directing. They all enthusiastically agree to join Cammell on his new project and the deal is put together. The final result however is something the movie world had never seen before. Warner Brothers, who’d been expecting a teen-accessible vehicle along the lines of A Hard Days Night, were so dumbfounded by that they left it on the shelf for two years.

ZANI: Why a play about another film?

WELSH: We’re both film nuts, fan boys to a certain extent. To men of a certain age like us there were three films you really ‘had’ to see when you were growing up. Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If’, Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange’ and ‘Performance’. There’s so many stories revolving around cult films that it’s very enticing to revisit the urban legends and myths that surround them.

ZANI: I remember all those films finding a new lease of life when VHS and Beta videos became available.

CAVANAGH: Yeah, I saw all of them on degraded, bootlegged video cassettes. They’d been copied that much you could hardly watch ‘em, which actually made the experience more exciting and intriguing.

ZANI: To anyone reading who hasn’t seen ‘Performance’ ( which I find hard to believe ) it’s the story of a South London gangster hiding out in a debauched Rock Star’s gaff in West London.

WELSH: With lashings of sex, drugs, violence and pseudo philosophizing. What’s not to like?

ZANI: So what’s the genesis of ‘Performers’?

CAVANAGH: There was no planning. We were just talking about films we love as per usual. We decided that it would make a good story if we concentrated on two real villains going along to the audition that’s all.

WELSH: Ultimately the play is about relationships.

ZANI: Which is something you’ve become known for in books and films like Trainspotting, Filth, Acid House, Skagboys, Glue and The Blade Artist, Irvine.

WELSH: Good drama is relationships. Relationships between the characters and also the relationship between the writer and the reader, or viewer.

ZANI: I’ve been lucky to read an extract from the play and it’s very funny. It doesn’t feel forced though and written for laughs. The language in it is like a cross between Pinter, Beckett and ‘Carry On’ films.

CAVANAGH: I can’t speak for Irvine but I’ve always thought anything ‘played’ for laughs falls flat after a while. I think we veer towards schadenfreude comedy, you know, where the humor is derived from somebody’s misfortune. It’s horrible in one respect but in another it’s a very humanizing lens to look through and easily and instantly identifiable.

WELSH: Failure’s always more interesting than success.

Johnny Shannon as mob boss Harry Flowers

ZANI: Do you see your characters in the play as failures?

CAVANAGH: You know ‘Bottom’ the sitcom Rik Mayall did? I’ve always seen that as a riff on Samuel Beckett. The hopelessness of a world that’s become secularized and moving towards an embrace of nihilism. Those characters are born failures because they’ve understood that mankind is already a fallen creature. There’s an intellectual honesty there that doesn’t need to state that ‘God is Dead’, it never enters their mind because they’re too busy trying to struggle through another day like most people. I think our characters in ‘Performers’ are similar in that their overwhelming economic survival instincts will always mark them as failures because they hanker after financial success so much. It’s that age old thing about those with money professing to not care about it and those without caring about it too much.

WELSH: All the characters in the play have designs on climbing up the ladder to what they believe is ‘success’. You just know though, that even if they were ‘successful’ they’d somehow manage to fuck it all up. It’s almost hardwired into their DNA to slap a gift horse in the mouth.

ZANI: So, from page to stage. What’s the story?

CAVANAGH: We showed the manuscript to director Nick Moran ( Lock Stock, Telestar, Harry Potter ) last year and then Nathan McGough, Shelley Hammond and Michael Hamlyn came on board as producers. Perry Benson came on board as one of the characters and it’s all fallen into place with readings and rewrites. We’ve also got George Russo, Maya Gerber and Lewis Kirk in the cast, terrific young actors on the rise.

The Colony, Soho, Francis Bacon's favourite drinking den

ZANI: Donald Cammell, the director of Performance, was influenced by the paintings of Francis Bacon in the style of the film. You’ve managed to bring that into the play.

CAVANAGH: Francis Bacon is in my opinion the greatest painter ever. He managed to capture the terror of existence and was far more honest than any of the existentialist writers and philosophers. He was also an endlessly fascinating character: boozer, gambler, raconteur, horrible cunt to his friends, obsessed with the low life of Soho. I’m actually far more fascinated by Bacon than the film ‘Performance’.

WELSH: Bacon certainly knew how to capture violence in paint.

ZANI: That time in late 1960’s London was a really interesting time. All the lines were being blurred, lots of new alliances being formed in culture.

WELSH: Yeah, the working class creatives started to come into their own.

CAVANAGH: For all the great art produced in that period though, there’s lots of ‘Age of Aquarius’ bollocks that infected the culture and turned it into a pastiche. The hippies are responsible for a lot of the problems we face today. Look at Branson. He was an hippy and now he’s at the forefront of trying to privatize the NHS. I also blame the hippies for infecting the labour movement with their Cultural Marxism doublespeak and fascistic political correctness. You never saw many working class hippies. It was always the movement for pseudo socialist, guilt ridden cunts from the upper middle class that rammed all that new age shite down peoples throats. I think the Mods and The Rockers were a great countenance to all that hippy shit.

ZANI: Well, from what I’ve read, your play certainly captures the late 1960’s Soho.

WELSH: Yeah, we’ll see what happens at the Edinburgh Festival but it would be great to get it running in London’s West End, for that immersive feeling.

Performers’ written by Irvine Welsh & Dean Cavanagh and directed by Nick Moran runs at The Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh from the 3rd of August to the 27th of August 2017.

Read 10453 times Last modified on Sunday, 14 February 2021 15:05
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Matteo Sedazzari

Matteo Sedazzari

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