Saturday, March 21, 2015

'Trainspotting' at the King's Head Theatre, 20th March 2015

By attending Harry Gibson's adaptation of Trainspotting, you risk being hit by fake turds, having liquid spat over you, being shoved about, dragged onto stage to dance, your "stupid trainers" being insulted, shitty fingers rubbed down your cheeks and, worst of all, a psychopathic Scot screaming at the top of his lungs mere millimetres from your face. It's wonderful night at the theatre.

Taking more cues from Irvine Welsh's book than Danny Boyle's 1996 film, In Your Face Theatre's Trainspotting dials up the aggression, dunking the already dark tale of young Edinburgh heroin addicts into pitch black ichor. Every poisonous, nihilistic bit of philosophising is accentuated, leaving a bullet-fast production that seeks to disgust, horrify and overwhelm its audience.

Our hero, Mark Renton (Gavin Ross) is a petty criminal, utter waster and morally degenerate smack addict. Ross looks like he's wandered out of  the government videos they show to schoolkids to scare them away from drugs; all red-rimmed eyes, shaven head, sunken cheeks and stained clothes. A miasma of disease and decay appears to surround him, the stained scenery decomposing in his sheer presence. But though he looks like something scraped off a shitty boot he's got a fierce intelligence, though all that's got him is insight that modern life is rubbish. In a hypocritical, consumerist world he craves something pure and unsullied - and finds it in heroin.

His friends are similarly screwed up. Tommy (Greg Esplin), while not a smack addict, is happy to guzzle every other drug under the sun. Sick Boy (Neil Pendleton) lives up his name, a poised, smarter-than-thou presence with zero interest in anyone other than what they can do for him. Franco Begbie (Chris Dennis)  is a some monstrous manifestation of psychotic aggression, a veiny pumped erection of a man full of booze and clutching the thin end of a pool cue.

Taking place over just an hour and ten minutes, the plot is condensed down into a series of vignettes. The later, London-set scenes are omitted, as is poor Spud, elements of whom are folded into Renton and Tommy. This paring of the fat leaves a chaotic, hard-to-map experience where themes, aesthetics and snatches of dialogue loom larger than narrative progression. 

Key to Trainspotting's success is a refusal to portray drug use as inherently immoral. Both film and book were famously criticised for glamorising heroin use, in reality this 'glamour' is really extreme empathy. Welsh, himself a former addict, took his audience under the skin of the addicts, a place most people would rather not go. After all, track marks, AIDS, shoplifting, constipation and shooting heroin into your genitals is something that happens to other people isn't it?. But in by placing us in their shoes and lyrically describing the 'why' of heroin ("Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by a thousand and you're still nowhere near it.") he approaches an awkward but undeniable honesty. That honesty is the dramatic bedrock of Trainspotting, upon which Welsh builds the eventual horror of withdrawal, disease and death.

Gavin Ross as Renton
In Your Face's production understands this, beginning in speedy, anarchic hedonism before undergoing tonal collapse into horror and misery. This is perhaps best signified by the way it begins and ends. The space is laid out like a scummy nightclub, the hazy dry ice air sliced apart by twirling laser beams, 90s trance house blares over the PA, the room dancing to Faithless' Insomnia. It's a perfect facsimile of a nightclub; yet scarcely an hour later this sensory overload has been reduced to a single fluttering candle. Navigating this rapid slide to the bottom is disorientating, the audience undergoing a rough simulation of what its like to lose a couple of days and wake up in an unfamiliar place.

That said, for all that we're encouraged to climb inside these character's heads the production places them in opposition to the audience. Throughout we're manhandled and generally treated like shit. Here the differences between book, film and stage are most apparent. We can maintain a cosy distance from these people in the latter mediums, which makes them palatable and vaguely likeable. But Renton and company are somewhat less fun when they're picking on you, especially when Dennis' terrifying Begbie has decided that you're looking at him funny.

This aggression, manifesting primarily in a willingness to stain our fancy Friday night outfits with a variety of sticky fluids, is a direct challenge to the audience's bourgeois sensibilities. It acts as a weapon against those that'd wish to giggle at the cheeky, chirpy Scottish heroin craziness and go home unsullied - the character's anger implicating us in their circumstances After all, when Renton's raging against "rotting away at the end of it all, pishing you last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked-up brats you've spawned to replace yourself." that's us he's talking about.

This is a beautifully horrid piece of theatre, revelling in dragging both characters and audience through shit. But In Your Face have grown flowers from this shit. Wonderfully staged, intelligently adapted, near perfectly played and with a soundtrack to die for - In Your Face's Trainspotting is a blast of sadistic brilliance.


Trainspotting is at the King's Head Theatre until 11th April, with multiple shows per day. Tickets here.

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