Mind your language
As his new play premieres at the Arches, Booker Prize winner James Kelman talks to Steve Cramer about language, the theatre and politics
It might seem remarkable that a Booker Prize-winning novelist should be available to write for the stage in Scotland, yet hasn’t been asked to do so for well over a decade. Yet this is the situation James Kelman has found himself in, despite a general willingness among theatre companies to perform his work elsewhere. A number of practitioners have worked with Kelman internationally; as recently as 2003 Texas outfit Rude Mechanicals (seen at this year’s Edinburgh fringe with Get Your War On) made quite a hit of an adaptation of his How Late It Was, How Late. But the man who penned A Disaffection to win the 1989 Booker, and has since impressed an international readership with a succession of acclaimed novels, can’t get arrested in Scotland as far as the stage goes.
This lamentable void in our theatre culture is currently being remedied, at least in part, by Andy Arnold’s team at The Arches. Arnold has shown his usual theatrical savvy in calling on Kelman, who’ll be presenting the first of two pieces, Herbal Remedies at the Arches shortly. ‘The idea for the play came from a short story I worked on back in 1991,’ Kelman explains. ‘But that doesn’t simply mean that the play will be a short story on stage. I’ve written this piece especially to be staged.’
The play’s central idea is a simple one. In it, two men walk in a park, discussing all manner of matters from the sublime to the very ordinary, when a woman appears. Their discussion then continues with a third party. Given the simplicity of the scenario, there seems to be a bigger existentialist subtext – one that is frequently tagged on to Kelman’s work. ‘People will say that it’s like Pinter or Beckett, but it’s only that way in that it takes from them, and other writers, a sense of things preceding from everyday life, from the things that are simply happening around us,’ the writer explains. ‘There is a tradition of this, and in the sense that it belongs to that tradition it resembles certain other writers, but the piece, I hope, also inherits certain newer traditions that are evolving in writing now. The whole thing takes place on stage in real time, for instance.’
Kelman seems to hint that part of the problem in getting staged, and indeed getting on as a writer, is about the exclusion of local voices from a mainstream conversation in the culture. The multinationalisation of language, the insistence on a small number of voices speaking in similar accents, quite distinct from the West Coast idioms of many of his characters in most mainstream media is part of the problem. ‘Wherever you are, people are always pressured to abandon the indigenous language of where they are from. There are certain ways of getting on in the world, which involve speaking in the language of others. There’s a lot about class involved here, it’s basically political. If you learn to play this game and speak in the language of a different people, and abandon the experience of origins, of what you grew up with as reality, then you can get on very well. But I prefer to write in the language of the reality of people’s experience.’
The Arches, Glasgow, Tue 16–Sat 27 Oct.