Gregory Burke: Hoors
Gregory Burke would have good reason to be nervous about his follow up to Black Watch. But, as he tells Steve Cramer, he’s taking it in his stride
Gregory Burke feels more mellow, more at home with himself than the thirtysomething who entered the public domain with the premiere of Gagarin Way in 2001. At that time there was a sense of a man dazzled by the sudden attention the play brought him. These days, after the legendary success of Black Watch – which toured throughout the world after its triumph at the Edinburgh Fringe of 2006, returning to New York last Christmas and finally garnering four Olivier Awards in March – Burke seems milder and more mature. He is now in his 40s, settled in Edinburgh and devoting time to fatherhood, but what hasn’t changed at all is his affability. As he sits across from me at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, the warmth and chuckling ease is as strong as ever.
His new play, Hoors, he tells me, will inevitably be seen as a follow-up to Black Watch, yet it was written before his epic examination of the lives of several soldiers serving the eponymous regiment in Iraq. Its story tells of the aftermath of a catastrophic stag weekend, during which the groom has died. On the night before his funeral, a day originally intended to be his wedding, his bride, her sister and two of his male friends gather to steel themselves for the day ahead. But the piece is a whole lot funnier than this sombre scenario suggests.
‘When I was in my early 20s, we’d just go out for a night, locally,’ says Burke reflecting on the self-destructive nature of stag events, and their place in today’s society. ‘But there’s that consumer logic of “if one stag night was here, let’s go further away. Let’s make it bigger, longer, further away and spend more money.” These days people go to Las Vegas for a week. You think, “When was that email sent around? I missed it.” How does that cultural thing about this traditional way of saying, “This is your farewell to singledom,” become, “Let’s go to Amsterdam and have sex with trafficked women”? If you boil it down to its bones what’s left is we give our money to organised crime for fun.’
The potential humour of funerals, the sense in which the absolute finality of mortality brings with it an urge to laugh interests Burke. ‘The thing about Hoors is weddings and funerals are the only time we see people from a wider circle of friends, and folk you’ve known a long time and don’t see any more,’ he says. ‘It’s one of the rare times when a social convention is created where you have to behave in a certain way. People have to be happy at weddings and sad at funerals. But sometimes funerals can be hysterically funny. And when people die they become these fantastic people – you know – “He had a great head of hair” and you think, “No he didn’t he was bald”.’
The clash between social conventions and a more primal self that the play examines, though, goes further than this. ‘Did the girl in it really want to get married or did she feel obliged to, as a rite of passage? That kind of question feeds into the play,’ says Burke. ‘There’s also that thing about people who go away. One of the characters has been away – but when that happens, people assume they’ve been successful in life. They might be a tramp in the city they live in, but that assumption is made.’
We return almost inevitably to Black Watch. Does a play that can boast such phenomenal success hang over a writer’s subsequent work like a judgement? ‘I’m very happy to have done Black Watch from a professional point of view, a financial point of view – everything it has done for me. You can’t not enjoy that. But I don’t want to keep writing Black Watch. The number of times people have come to me to write scripts about soldiers – it’d be easy to get trapped in that. The good thing about winning all those Oliviers was it closed the curtain. So that’s great, that’s it over. I’ve been through this all before with Gagarin Way. But initially after that one, I was kind of paralysed – I couldn’t remember how I’d done it. This time there’s more a feeling of just get on with it. I wanted to write something that’s just kind of funny. I mean it’s about a serious thing, but it’s meant to be a good night out.’
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 1–Sat 23 May and touring.