Nova Scotia - John Byrne
Brave New World
As the Traverse prepares to put on the fourth instalment of John Byrne’s seminal Slab Boys trilogy, Kirstin Innes talks to the man himself about nostalgia, old friends and the state of Scottish culture
‘Thirty years! Thirty years!’ John Byrne is standing in the middle of Victoria Street in Edinburgh, looking like one of his own drawings. Perfectly-sculpted, curled white quiff, battered layers of tweed and colour, thoroughly imposing, nicotine-stained moustache obscuring his mouth and his arms scarecrow-wide, pointing in different directions.
‘Thirty years since we first put on The Slab Boys, in that building over there. The old Traverse. We’re rehearsing up the hill in the very same hall as we rehearsed the first show, too, which is quite extraordinary. It’s been playing tricks with me, making me think that it hasn’t been that long after all. And of course, in the current play, Nova Scotia, it’s been 30 years since the three characters met, too.’
The ‘three characters’ Byrne is talking about, of course, are Phil McCann, George ‘Spanky’ Farrell and Lucille Bentley, two best friends from Paisley and the love of both their lives. Scottish audiences first fell for the trio in 1978, with the phenomenally successful first production of The Slab Boys, which was followed up quickly by Cuttin’ A Rug, both plays set on the same day at the fag-end of the 1950s, in and around the carpet factory where all three sparky, bored teenagers worked. Then came the sadder, wiser Still Life, its two acts set ten and 15 years later, following the characters into their 20s and 30s, into marriage and pregnancy, ambition and disappointment. Over the years Phil and Spanky have been played by a Who’s Who of Scottish acting talent (Robbie Coltrane, Gerard Kelly, Alan Cumming, Robert Carlyle, Billy Boyd, not to mention Kevin Bacon and Sean Penn in the Broadway version) – this time around it’s Paul Morrow and Gerry Mulgrew. Gerda Stevenson is slapping on the stilettoes and panstick to play Lucille, in her own way just as iconic a role for the country’s actresses. The three plays, always conceived by Byrne as a trilogy, were last performed in their entirety in 2003, to celebrate the Traverse’s 40th anniversary; revisiting the characters again on this particular anniversary, again at the Traverse and using a cast studded with some of the best theatre actors in the country, feels entirely appropriate.
‘Of course, people are laughing about Nova Scotia being “the fourth part of a trilogy”,’ says Byrne. ‘I know, I know. But then someone pointed out to me recently that Douglas Adams did five parts of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. I might do five. He’s safely dead. I could beat him.’
He laughs, a great big brilliant guffaw, and then bends closer, as though he’s whispering secrets about the people next to us.
‘Do you know, it wasn’t going to be about them at all. I was writing a completely different play, still set in the North East of Scotland. I was sitting there trying to get the characters’ names right, because I always have to do that before I get to work, and they totally gatecrashed the party! Spanky, Phil and Lucille just turned up and insisted the play was actually about them. And that was me, stuck with them.’
Nova Scotia happens in a series of meet-ups, hook-ups, coincidence and reunions, over the course of one day in 2002, on the lawn of the huge crumbling house where a 60-something former slab boy turned successful painter lives with his much younger, more starry partner and their two small children, circumstances famously similar to Byrne’s own life with his actor partner Tilda Swinton. But then The Slab Boys trilogy was always a very personal project for the playwright: he’s never hidden the fact that the first two plays were based on his early years in the slab room of Stoddart’s carpet factory, nor that the characters were very much inspired by real people.
‘I’ve no facility for creating a type of person I’m not, or I’m nothing near. It wouldnae interest me. The funny thing is that all the people who worked in Stoddarts when I was there, they’re all going to have a reunion, on 4 May. One fella has made it big in Philadelphia, is buying houses over here; Adele [one of the models for Lucille], has been living in New York for 40 years; Jim Rafferty, who worked in the slab room with me – they’re all getting together, and they’re going to see the play. They did it when they were young, they came to see The Slab Boys. They so enjoyed it. None of them could see themselves in it, though. Even though the characters were plucked from that milieu. The names were, well, partially changed, and then embroidered on and exaggerated or added to.’
It’s not just an exercise in nostalgia, though, this revisiting of old characters?
‘Oh God, no. No, I’m not interested in nostalgia at all. I’m interested in one’s history. One only has one’s history, and one’s memories, but if you spend your life poring over them nostalgically, you’re going to lose yourself.’
Byrne’s distrust of that sort of sentimental wallowing is what elevates Nova Scotia from a jolly catch-up with some old pals to, as the title hints, a meditation on the state of the nation. Or at the very least, the state of the nation’s art. It’s been pointed out before, but one of the things that made the Slab Boys so significant at the time was that it was set in 1957. At 19, Phil wanted to go to art school; Spanky had dreams of being a rock’n’roller. Ten, 15, 20 years on, and disempowered, disenchanted working class boys with artistic ambitions – Byrne and the generation of artists, writers and musicians like him – would have changed the face of popular and high culture, in Scotland and the rest of the UK. Some time between then and now, Spanky and Phil have made it big(gish), had their moments in the sun and faded back into irrelevance. Rather cruelly, Nova Scotia has them beset on all sides by a fast-talking exasperated generation of 30-somethings who refer to them as ‘an ageing has-been’ and ‘an incontinent, over-the-hill tosser’, respectively. Ten, 20 years on again, and the most significant Scottish artist of the day is Phil’s partner, Didi Chance, whose latest conceptual video piece has got her onto the Turner Prize shortlist, and one of the most interesting scenes in the play charts the disintegration of their relationship through an argument about their respective generations’ outlook. Didi denounces the machismo of older Scottish painters as ‘that mob of feeble-minded retards from the RSA, with your “ma knob’s biggern’ yours” mind set’; Phil snaps back that Didi’s generation ‘don’t understand anythin’ – language . . . culture . . . art . . . nuance. Irony to you lot’s like a baseball bat is to a bouncer!’ Byrne, even-handed, sits back and lets them both have their say. He may share certain biographical details with Phil, but he’s not going to let either of them win.
‘Phil’s not my mouthpiece,’ says Byrne. ‘He’s like me, but he’s not my mouthpiece. Do you know, the play always had that title, Nova Scotia, even when it was about different characters.
‘The new Scotland – it really is a new country. There’s no point hanging onto old stuff. Hang onto what you believe in, but if you’re gonnae cling to the past, to the old life, you’ll end up left behind. It’s a new century, it really is. Phil, everyone, has to accept that times have changed. Even if they cannae change with them.’
Nova Scotia, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 25 Apr–Sat 24 May.