Interview: Cora Bissett and David Greig on Whatever Gets You Through the Night
Night-themed project brings together theatre, music, film and a book
We’ve all been there. The ouzo from the back of the cupboard has been drained. Fag ends float in abandoned mugs of wine, David Bowie’s Low is on repeat. Any moment now the sun will penetrate the landlord’s sick-coloured curtains. It’s that moment at the end of the party when, as Cora Bissett puts it, ‘you realise that you are the dregs’.
People are around between midnight and 4am, says her collaborator David Greig, for a reason. ‘You’ve been up all night talking until you actually say, “Are we going to get off with each other?” or finally say, “I can’t take this any more, I’m going to leave.” You’re only awake then if something weird is going on.’
In Whatever Gets You Through the Night, Greig and Bissett take the intense experiences of the wee small hours, as imagined by some of the country’s creative A-list, and turn them into a theatrical tour of pre-dawn Scotland. Bissett, whose CV includes the bands Darlingheart and Swelling Meg as well as acting and directing, was approached by Glasgow’s Arches to create a show that combined live music with theatre in a ‘not-a-musical’ way.
She knew she wanted Greig on board and much of the work was done in the hotel rooms and sun loungers of Australia, while on tour with Greig’s play Midsummer, in which Bissett co-stars.
‘We had identified ten bands and ten writers we were interested working with and asked them to create a song or a page of text, a scene or a piece of prose, which happens somewhere specific in Scotland between the hours of midnight and 4am. They have created all these snapshots of life through the night, moments happening.’
Musical input has been driven by Greig and Bissett’s third collaborative partner, Edinburgh band Swimmer One, who downloaded their in-depth knowledge of new music to Bissett and Greig’s iPods. This has been an enjoyable education for both: ‘I love music but had lost touch a bit,’ says Greig. ‘Then here I was being a bit of a fanboy, listening to bands I loved and bands I’d not heard yet.’ That many of these are named after damaged body parts, such as Wounded Knee, only adds to the pleasure. ‘One of the delights for me has been finding Dan from Withered Hand. He’s fantastic.’
Dan Willson’s plangent narratives about eyeliner and cigarettes were new to Bissett as well, as were experimental electro-popstrels Conquering Animal Sound, folktronicists Meursault and Mogwai’s protégés, Errors. She was also keen to involve Eugene Kelly of The Vaselines, Deacon Blue’s Ricky Ross and Emma Pollock, who have all contributed songs. Not all of these are what their creator’s back catalogue might suggest. ‘If the only thing this show does is prompt Eugene Kelly to bring into this world the song “Chips and Cheese”, then that’s enough,’ says Greig. ‘It’s his homage to our great national dish. We are doing it as a six-part harmony with a horn section. That alone is worth the ticket price.’
Joining them are writers from stage (Kieran Hurley, Stef Smith) and screen (Annie Griffin). There are poets such as Alan Spence as well as some whose writing crosses into performance (Alan Bissett, Kirstin Innes, Skye Loneregan). Bissett will direct the show while Greig is what would be called dramaturg, if it wasn’t a word he makes a point of avoiding. ‘I’m just working with Cora to give it a shape. I’ve written some joiny-up bits, when it needs an idea to connect up a song or a scene. Cora’s shaping the show and directing it, I’m keeping an eye on the audience’s emotional journey.’
For Greig, who also directs and recently curated the One Day in Spring series for A Play, a Pie and a Pint and the National Theatre of Scotland, this is an agreeable way of working. ‘I was not asked if I would write a play,’ he says with some relief. ‘I was asked to look at all the bits of text and ideas and songs, and work with Cora to help make that into the shape of an evening, so that the audience wants to know what’s happening next.
‘As I listened to all the songs, I realised they were all about connecting. When do we feel most alone? If we are up at 4am, it’s then, when the taxi driver tells us his life story or we see someone crying on a street corner into a poke of chips. That impulse to connect is at its strongest because we’re at our most atomised.’
It’s a big subject set over a sprawling landscape: a farewell on Loch Lomond, a Skype affair, a virtual reality game, Queen’s Park on Glasgow’s southside, the dark starry skies of Galloway Forest Park. Bissett wants to ‘put the songs centre stage and build the other emotional and visual elements around them’. Not every one is used in its entirety and some of the written pieces are reduced to fragments.
This is not what writers of words or music want to hear, so at the start of the process 18 months ago, everyone was warned there would be liberties taken for the live show. ‘I have to be a bit sharp sometimes,’ says Greig. ‘I’ll say, “This scene is fantastic but these three chunks of dialogue are the moment, that’s what we’ll have, with that very sad song ending, it bounces us brilliantly into this next song. And maybe that song can only go as far as first bridge …”’ There will, however, be an album and a book, produced by co-collaborators Swimmer One, to accompany the show, in which every contribution will be pristine and untouched. Filmmaker Daniel Warren will include the songs in a film, which will be shown at Edinburgh’s Summerhall as part of its Fringe programme.
Back in the big club space at the Arches, what can the audience expect? ‘It will feel like a big student flat,’ says Bissett. ‘Dark and grungy. I want us to get through the night together.’ In place of a set there are huge projection screens. Kim Beveridge, the digital artist from Bissett’s award-strewn Roadkill, has been filming imagery that will complement the music.
‘Even if the actors just stood about, the people paying the ticket price get to see a pretty amazing gig,’ says Greig. ‘A beautifully chosen set of people playing really good music.’ Some of the music is live, some recorded. Kelly’s gastro anthem is sung by the cast. ‘And the cream on top of cake is that we are arranging your emotional journey through that.’
‘What I like,’ adds Bissett, ‘is that we really really give you the space to listen to songs. I used to listen to music carefully, and proper proper musos will still sit and listen through to an album. But I’m guilty of using shuffle, tune in and out. So this is not little clips. Listen to this, the words, these beautiful shifts. Just stop for a second. Let’s all be present. What we do physically and visually will heighten that.’
And that’s it. Oppression, revolution and other issues associated with Greig and Bissett’s back catalogues can all be left in the bedroom with the coats (where someone will probably, at some point in the evening, throw up over them). ‘Sometimes we work on very overt subject matter that can be very politically engaged, dealing with huge big issues,’ says Bissett. ‘There’s no issue here. It’s a kind show, we’re all sitting in this big flat together. There’s something warm about it. I’d like it to feel like your best mate.’
The Arches, Glasgow, Tue 26–Fri 29 Jun, and Summerhall, Edinburgh, Thu 23 Aug.