Interview: David Leddy on new show Long Live the Little Knife
Theatremaker on 2013 work taking in themes of authenticity, gender and free market economics
This month, Scots theatremaker David Leddy (Susurrus, Sub Rosa, Untitled Love Story) premieres his new work Long Live the Little Knife in Glasgow ahead of an Edinburgh Fringe run later this year. Here’s the full transcript of our interview.
You’ve already staged Long Live the Little Knife at the British Museum, is that right?
No, what we did at the British Museum was a seven-minute-long prequel with the same characters but a completely different script. This is their full-length caper, previously it was a little try-out. When I made the piece for the Museum I knew this was going to be the next show, and so I used it as an opportunity to try out the characters.
So what is it about? What can we expect to see?
Well, we meet Liz and Jim, who are shonky market traders who sell fake designer handbags. They get caught up in a turf war and have to raise two hundred and fifty grand very quickly, so they decide that the best way to do this is by becoming the world’s greatest art forgers. They can’t paint, but they’ll solve that problem later. How hard can it be? The whole show is about what makes something real and authentic. What makes an artwork a real artwork? What’s real love? What’s a real man and a real woman? That’s interwoven, in terms of theatre, with verbatim interviews, making a show based on them, and the presumption that we make that that’s real. Just because someone said something in an interview it doesn’t mean it’s real.
Who are the verbatim interviews with?
Well, you’ll have to come and see the show. (laughs)
A lot of your work so far has had a very site-specific nature. Is there an element of that here?
Yes and no. I don’t know who invented the term ‘site-specific’, but I think it’s a very destructive one. What’s implicit in that is that the piece of work has to be specific to the room that it’s performed in, and so every time you go outside a theatre, you call the work site-specific even though it isn’t necessarily specific to the space it’s in. It’s just not in a theatre. This is a piece where we create a sort of installation, if you like, with paint-splattered dust sheets. It looks like Jackson Pollock’s had a drunken explosion in the middle of the room. That can move to all sorts of different places, and what we’re excited about is that as we take the show out later, sometimes we’ll perform it in a pristine white art gallery, sometimes we’ll perform it in a disused, filthy factory space, other times it will be in a theatre. There’ll always be some kind of resonance to the narrative, which is why we’re interested in art galleries and disused spaces. It has resonance, but it’s not about being specific to the site. Often with site-specific theatre, people imagine that the story should take place within the location in which they’re watching the show, and they get frustrated when it’s not.
So in a broader sense, you’re trying to explore the truth of art?
Absolutely, and the truth of art in relation to forgery. There’s a beautiful book by Paul Bloom called How Pleasure Works – it’s a beautiful title – in which he talks about authenticity, and particularly how forged artworks completely send our brains on the fritz, because we love the object for what it looks like, but actually… what makes it authentic or not authentic? Somebody with the skill to paint that picture painted it, whether or not it was Rembrandt.
The other theme of the show is free market economics. Where does that come in?
The art market is the world’s most unregulated market. Things that you would be sent to prison for in the dealing of stocks and shares are perfectly legal in the art world, and you can make enormous amounts of money very fast by rigging the market, by creating false bubbles and so on. The show talks about a lot of things like that. The two characters meet an art world mentor called Marguerita d’Angelo, who’s a hard-nosed New York art dealer who does everything she can to manipulate the market and make money, and destroy young artist’s careers in the meantime, although she doesn’t care about that. They buy a book in Prestwick Airport called Work Will Set You Free, which is about a combination of economic and spiritual development, a yin and yang that’s kind of Maggie Thatcher meets the Dalai Lama. They use this book like a bible, telling them what should be the next stage of their spiritual and economic growth. Because, you know, Ayn Rand must be right.
What’s the title a reference to?
Back in the days of the castrati, when a castrato singer sang a particularly long, high note, instead of shouting ‘bravo!’ the audience would shout ‘evviva il coltellino!’ – ‘long live the little knife!’ In other words, thank god you had your knackers cut off so that you can sing this fabulous note for our pleasure. Castration features as one of the themes of the piece, particularly in terms of authenticity of gender. The idea of what makes a real man and a real woman, and how often what we consider to be a real man or a real woman is their ability to reproduce. We have a real anxiety about the idea of people who can’t have children, culturally it’s really worrying to us. So this is one of the things that comes up in the piece.
Another phrase that jumps out from the press release is ‘castrated labradoodle’.
(laughs) Yes, that’s the inciting incident at the beginning. As they enter into the turf war, they find their beloved labradoodle has been castrated and stuffed inside a classic Chanel clutch bag… gold chain, quilted leather, beige flaps and blood everywhere. That’s when they realise this means war.
I was going to say it sounds like a comedy, but perhaps not.
It’s very funny! We’ve really enjoyed working on it, it’s a great fun show. You know, as with all work which deals with quite big themes, it looks at the underside of the world. But it’s definitely a black comedy. It’s a raucous caper and that’s great fun to work on, because I’ve worked on quite a few serious shows. A few months ago, maybe a year ago, I saw the writer Daniel Jackson at Euston station and we got the train back to Glasgow together. We were talking about the projects we had coming up, and I was describing all my various avant garde things, and Daniel sighed and asked, ‘are you ever going to write something funny again? Where people talk to each other?’ Then later I saw him at a Christmas party and told him this is that show, and he said, ‘so in a way it’s dedicated to me?’ Yeah, I’m enjoying having gags.
You’re taking it to the Fringe in August, is that right?
Yeah, we’re trying it out in Glasgow, then taking it to the Fringe and then on tour in September.
Long Live the Little Knife is at Film City, Glasgow, Thu 7 to Sat 9 Feb.