In vino veritas: Grid Iron's Barflies
This article is from 2009.
Steve Cramer meets the creative team behind Barflies, Grid Iron’s new piece about drinking and creativity. In the pub, obviously
‘An alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you.’ Dylan Thomas’s observation about alcohol abuse and the selective moralism that goes with it, seems an apt way in to the new show from Grid Iron in which the work of another tippler – this time from the great tradition of alcoholism that is American literature – is adapted for the stage.
The work of Charles Bukowski, that inheritor of the mantle of Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway, is explored through a site specific piece that takes place entirely in Edinburgh’s Barony bar. I’m sitting in another pub, the King’s Wark in Leith, to discuss the piece with director Ben Harrison, actors Keith Fleming and Gail Watson, and musical director David Paul Jones, who, pints in hand, are out to give me a flavour of the piece.
Ben Harrison: The show is based on three stories from The Most Beautiful Woman in Town collection. We’re not putting in scenic elements, except the piano – we’re hoping regulars will walk in and not notice the difference. There are just some subtle little things. But we don’t have to change it, the play takes place in the Barony. Most of the words are his, we’re tweaking it here and there, because we didn’t want to make it a thing related entirely to America. Scotland, of course, has a very complex relationship with alcohol, and the site suggestiveness of doing it in the Barony led us to a Scottish voice.
Steve Cramer: Is there a connection between substance abuse and creativity?
BH: Yes, there’s certainly a connection. There’s so much hypocrisy about it. Look at Lewis Carroll, we love him and gloss over the drugs.
Keith Fleming: Look at all the absinthe drinkers, I think the genius is already there, but booze helps.
Gail Watson: We had a great rehearsal yesterday, and everyone was hungover! Alcohol makes you more fluid, you just flow. What we’re trying to convey is that sense of optimism and euphoria you find when you’re drunk. It’s not glorifying it, but that’s what happens.
KF: Bukowski’s a writer who shows no tendency to glorify what he does. He says ‘that’s the world I’m in.’ He’s very direct in what he writes, he doesn’t romanticise, but he won’t pretend that he doesn’t drink. He says, ‘I was on a bender last night, and this is the world I see this morning – I write better when I’ve had a skinfull, so why change?’
BH: There’s this great line in the text that says: ‘You fucked up your history, let me wallow in mine.’ In a way it’s like a paradoxical plea for privacy, ‘judge my writing but don’t judge my drinking.’ It would be hypocritical of us to take any moral line. His only moral position was on drugs. He didn’t understand hippies, because why take LSD when you’ve got booze? That kind of fits with what we do at Grid Iron. Gargantua was an attack on Calvinistic Scotland.
KF: Yes, somebody saw the poster in which I’m smoking, and said my God, you can’t do that! I mean, what kind of society are we living in when a poster creates a stir?
BH: It’s frightening how we internalise this bullshit. Bukowski would have been amazed to find we couldn’t smoke in an adaptation of his work.
SC: Bukowski’s work often simply describes a way of life. But are there things he’s for and against?
BH: He’s definitely writing against the Reaganite ethic, that thing about work really hard and you’ll be rewarded. His father was very like that, a good old American guy, a soldier and a hard worker – he worked so hard that he virtually died of exhaustion. That’s what I find seductive in his argument; he makes you think you might have a more fulfilled life sitting on a barstool, feeling the world, shagging lots of women, drinking loads. You can get more from life that way than, say, going to India, or for that matter, calling yourself a writer. He’s pretty serious about writing, but he doesn’t want to do it in terms of the rat race – he doesn’t want that bullshit of sitting around in Paris like Joyce and being patronised by people.
KF: And my character doesn’t want to be pigeon holed that way. It puts a tag on him, and he kind of resents it. He wants his work to be read – he’s vomiting out his soul, but he’s scared of selling out and losing that. If you pull him from that world, will he lose his power? If you look at bands like Oasis and Arctic Monkeys they had great first albums because they wrote about what they wanted, and about getting out of the gutter. But when they got the rich lifestyle, they couldn’t write about what they did anymore. There’s a kind of fear about losing that world he writes about.
SC: So, what’s the most creative thing you’ve done when you were drunk?
GW: I made my son.
BH: God, you’ve topped us all before we started! You certainly become more convinced of your own importance. Jude Docherty [Grid Iron’s producer and Harrison’s co-artistic director] and I were walking along the street in New York, and this woman came out of a bar horizontally. I said to Jude, ‘That must be an authentic American barfly.’ She spotted us looking at her, and dragged us back into the bar, you know, [American accent] ‘Give these guys a drink.’ She was probably only about 50, but she was ravaged. By the end of that night we’d talked about it, and decided to do Barflies. It was obvious we were doing it in the Barony, it was even cast, so that’s the most creative thing I’ve done drunk.
David Paul Jones: And on the other side of the world I was in the Barony when I got Ben’s text about it! I’ve written songs pissed. My favourite is one called ‘Sailing Cloud Jo’, it’s about love and loss, but it’s not negative, it’s a celebration of what was.
KF: I’ve re-directed all the plays I’ve been in pissed. But I think as an actor I’m not alone in that. I tell you what, I’ve managed to turn some real munter girls into beauties pissed!
GW: We’ve all done that!
Barflies, The Barony, 228 1404, 8–31 Aug (not 14 & 15, 21–22, 28, 29), 3pm (24 & 25 noon), £16 (£11). Preview 7 Aug, 3pm, £11 (£5).