Interview: Cora Bissett and Peter Arnott discuss Edinburgh Festival Fringe show Janis Joplin: Full Tilt
The play stars Angie Darcy as the iconic 60s singer-songwriter and member of the infamous 27 Club
This article is from 2014.
After a critically acclaimed turn in last year’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint season, Janis Joplin: Full Tilt is taking on Edinburgh. Malcolm Jack chats to Cora Bissett and Peter Arnott, the duo behind the show
The way in which this part-concert part-play came together is fitting tribute to both the free and easy spirit of the age it remembers, and the wonderfully no-nonsense manner in which the late David MacLennan ran Òran Mór’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint theatre programme.
Having witnessed a ‘jawdropping’ performance by her friend Angie Darcy as Janis Joplin in the 2012 Fringe play The 27 Club, director Cora Bissett – of Glasgow Girls and multi-award winner Midsummer: A Play With Songs repute – some months later sent an audio recording of the actress/musician to MacLennan insisting that they find someone to write a one woman show for Darcy on the same theme. ‘And Dave, in his own inimitable way,’ explains Bissett, ‘he just said “absa-fucking-loutely! Who should write it?” And Peter Arnott was literally standing at the bar, and we just shook on it there and then. It was literally that easy. Sometimes you have months of getting the right creative team together, but that wasn’t Dave’s way of doing things.’
‘That was a very 1960s thing to happen,’ Arnott adds. ‘It wasn’t that planned, it just kind of happened. Angie is such a talent, you just build the show around her. It’s not rocket science.’
Janis Joplin: Full Tilt debuted at A Play, A Pie and A Pint at Glasgow’s Òran Mór last autumn and arrives at the Fringe in a slightly expanded form. The iconic American blues-rock singer – who died of a heroin overdose in 1970, aged 27 – is brought to life by Darcy with backing from a full live band, in the context of an imagined concert loosely based around one of her final famously rambling and explosive live appearances.
As Joplin was wont to do in an invariably drunk and stoned state, she holds court with the crowd at length – between and sometimes during songs – exposing her wounded soul for all to see and hear. She talks about the pleasure and pains of her life, from misfit, bullied child of a lower middle-class Texan family to multi-million selling voice of a generation. She philosophises widely on everything from being a woman in the male-dominated music industry, to the pressures of fame and the split personality it forces upon her. When Darcy sings – performing timeless songs like ‘Piece of My Heart’ and ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ – she channels Joplin’s unmistakably raw, serrated, scintillatingly loud and passionate mezzo-soprano, a sound which Arnott likens to that of ‘a planet exploding’.
Winner of a Fringe First in 2012 for Why Do You Stand There in the Rain?, Arnott wrote his script in memory and celebration not just of Joplin but all of the members of the so-called 27 Club – Jim Morrison, Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix included – each of whom by eerie coincidence died from misadventure at the same age and within a few short years of each other. They were all prototypes for a certain type of fame, a certain type of hero-worshipping and excess – now so familiar in rock mythology but, to these talented young men and women who burned bright and burned-out fast, a new and powerful experience. ‘It was the beginning of the modern era,’ says Arnott. ‘Everything else since has been a hangover from the party in a way. That opening up of possibilities in the world is always worth celebrating. They define a lost generation.’
As a ‘white middle-aged man’, Arnott wasn’t necessarily the first person Bissett had in mind to write her Joplin play, but he proved the right person. ‘He’s a massive fan,’ she says, ‘and what he came out with was just so knowledgable. He just got her – got her to the very core.’ As Arnott sees it, Joplin ultimately could never come to terms with the terrible loneliness that haunted her throughout her short life, even as she stood on a stage adored by huge crowds. ‘That loneliness in front of thousands of people is absolutely the central theatrical thing,’ says Arnott. ‘Here’s this person whose name was on all the posters, but it’s not really her. In the later part of her career she invents this alter-ego called Pearl. Janis is the one nobody knows. In the script it says: “Janis is the one who cries alone, but which one would you be if you could choose?”’
While she set a new standard for gutsy iconoclasm by women in rock’n’roll, and has inspired countless singers since from Stevie Nicks to Florence Welch, it’s a great irony of Joplin’s legacy that one of her last and best-known songs, hippy anti-consumerism hymn ‘Mercedes Benz’ – as performed by Darcy in powerful a cappella format – has since become synonymous with adverts for, yup, cars. ‘But I think she’d have seen the cosmic joke,’ muses Arnott. ‘I think all great artists know that the universe is not on their side. We all have a limited time and, as Shakespeare put it, “rightness is all”. It’s not how long you’ve got, it’s what you do with it.’
Janis Joplin: Full Tilt, Assembly Checkpoint, 623 3030, 2–24 Aug (not 12, 19), 8.50pm, £12–£13.50. Previews 31 Jul–1 Aug, £10.