Tam Dean Burn

He’s your Venus

Steve Cramer talks to Tam Dean Burn, sole actor in an adaptation of Luke Sutherland’s Venus as a Boy, about love, sex, childhood and forgiveness

How does one pitch the story of a dying transsexual prostitute to the relatively conservative audiences one might expect in a place like Orkney? It must have been a conundrum pondered long and hard by the folks at the National Theatre of Scotland before the opening of this adaptation of author and musician Luke Sutherland’s Venus as a Boy, soon to appear at the Edinburgh Fringe.

As it transpired, they had little to fear. Sutherland’s account of the brief life of a male prostitute, which appeared as a novella in 2004, detailing a troubled childhood in Orkney followed by life as a prostitute on the streets of London, seems to have gone down a storm. Tam Dean Burn, the piece’s single actor, modestly attributes much of this to Sutherland himself, who accompanies the live performance with music, but confesses to being struck by just how well it all went in Orkney.

‘We couldn’t have asked for more from the audiences so far. The response was fantastic - it’s material that might slightly upset some, but there wasn’t a single walk out from young or old,’ he says.

Part of the secret, Burn maintains, is Sutherland’s ingenious structure. ‘I think the introduction we do helps. With the childhood part of the story that we begin with, lots of people understand and can relate to the kind of childish bullying that goes on,’ he says. But he adds that the secret of this is not sentimentality, but a realistic creation of a character. ‘There’s a kind of honesty about it. This character isn’t meant to be perfect. He participates in racism and bullying himself. He is able to forgive and forget, but he’s also been exhilarated by other people’s misery.’

He adds that for all the talk of various sexual practices that might offend, the piece doesn’t attempt to shock, but to explore the prejudices we have about other people. ‘It explores areas like sex, but also how fascism can be allowed to operate,’ Burn explains. ‘London is a very grungy place in the story, but there’s also this idea of real magicism, as Luke calls it, rather than magical realism - extraordinary things come from the ordinary, incidents and events that don’t really have any explanation. But ordinary things like falling in love for the first time as a teenager is something everybody goes through.’

There is, in the story’s telling, a certain mysticism that links us to a spiritual world often neglected in secular society. ‘He explores the most basic sensual feelings about sex, and ties them to the divine - sex is something to be enjoyed, but it’s a link to the spiritual,’ Burn says.

‘This idea that traditional morality is based on vengeance and punishment rather than forgiveness is central. The idea of Christianity is to conquer by forgiveness. I’ve spent some time reading William Blake, who’s an inspiration for Luke, in Orkney, and this idea that if we based things on forgiveness the world would be a very different place than it is now is really powerful. It certainly has made me think.’

Traverse Theatre, Fri 3-Tue 21 Aug. Preview Thu 2 Aug

Venus as a Boy (Fringe preview)

'In a room in Soho, a dying man is turning gold.' Adapted from Luke Sutherland's acclaimed novel, 'Venus as a Boy' is an explosive and haunting story about the miraculous power of sex. Co-produced by National Theatre of Scotland Workshop and Burnt Goods. Preview of the Traverse' Fringe programme.

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