Backbeat - Stuart Sutcliffe story comes to Citizen's Theatre, Glasgow
And the beat goes on
This season’s major show at the Citizens Theatre is more than just a Beatles biopic. Writer/director Iain Softley explains why to Jonny Ensall
One of a few men to hold the dubious title of ‘fifth Beatle’, Liverpool-raised Stuart Sutcliffe was, for 15 months, bassist with the biggest band in rock’n’roll history. During their residency in Hamburg from 1960-61, Sutcliffe – then John Lennon’s best friend – played his Höfner bass for The Beatles, alongside sideline interests in painting, perfecting his razor sharp, James Dean-inspired dress sense and new girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr.
Backbeat chronicles Sutcliffe’s eventual decision to choose Kirchherr and an artistic lifestyle over The Beatles, and (with proleptic echoes of Yoko Ono) the resulting friction with Lennon. It’s a story overshadowed by Sutcliffe’s premature death in 1962 from cerebral paralysis.
The play is an adaptation of the fondly remembered 1994 cult film of the same name, and original writer/director Iain Softley (also director of mainstream movies Hackers, K-Pax and Inkheart) is back 16 years later to helm this world premiere of the stage version. While not an isolated revival of the Beatles story – Sam Taylor-Wood’s Lennon biopic, Nowhere Boy, is the obvious comparison – Softley’s timing has little to do with cashing in on 50-year anniversary Beatles nostalgia.
‘For me this is not a Beatles biopic,’ Softley says. ‘It’s a story about three people – Stuart Sutcliffe, Astrid Kirchherr and John Lennon – and The Beatles is a backdrop to the story, which is partly what inspired the name, Backbeat’.
More than his creative influence on the band, it’s Sutcliffe’s own passions that have interested Softley. ‘He wasn’t a guy who could have been in The Beatles had he not died, and who also happened to paint. He was a major creative force and talent, which is precisely why John Lennon was so fascinated by him, and why their relationship was so intense.’
Capturing that intensity, both in the acting and musical performances of the cast (who play as the Hamburg Beatles), has been Softley’s priority. It’s telling that stars Andrew Knott (Lennon), Isabella Calthorpe (Kirchherr), and Alex Robertson (Sutcliffe) are frequently described in press releases as ‘connected’ or ‘socialites’. The play is heavily concerned with creating a sense of a scene, one in which the power and freshness of rock ‘n’ roll music matches the youthful promise of its members.
‘I never really wanted to reproduce the Beatles sound,’ Softley says of training his cast to play songs as the Hamburg Beatles. ‘I wanted to reproduce the effect that the Beatles had on Astrid Kirchherr when she walked into that club in Hamburg in the early 60s. She described to me [in interviews prior to the 1994 film] that it was like a physical assault and something she’d never experienced before. I didn’t want to look for what instrumentation and amplification it would have been that would have created that, I just wanted to use whatever means and whatever music would have that effect on the audience.’
Backbeat is full of the universal appeal of both good-looking youth and pounding rock’n’roll. However, the final sad note of the play is still the fact of Sutcliffe’s life, and burgeoning creative potential, cut short. ‘I think that the intrinsic story about the choice that this guy makes between art and rock’n’roll, his best friend and his girlfriend, is a perennial everyman story,’ Softley concludes. ‘But I think that he was more talented than his role as the fifth Beatle would suggest.’
Backbeat, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Tue 9 Feb–Sat 6 Mar.