Times change, eh?
This utterly banal and entirely unoriginal thought popped into my head as a result of a visit, on Saturday afternoon last, to the Theatre Royal, Bath, to see a stage adaptation of Irvine Walsh's novel Trainspotting.
Trainspotting was the author's first novel, and you can find an exhaustive discussion and description of it on Wikipedia. First published in 1993, the novel was both a literary success (longlisted for the Booker) and a popular hit.
There are two main points to be made about the novel here. First, parts of it were written in a phonetic version of English as spoken with an extreme Scottish accent. This form of speech is technically, I suppose, a dialect rather than a separate language, and for a scholarly discussion of it you should again dip into Wikipedia. But you should know that speech in this style is pretty difficult to follow, either in written or spoken form, unless you were born north of the border.
Second, you should know that the book deals with a group of young Scottish low-lifes, drug addicts, layabouts, psychopaths, and general no-goods, with associated shocking events. Well, potentially shocking.
The book was turned into a film, in 1996, but that need not detain us here. And earlier, in 1994, Harry Gibson had done an adaptation of it for the theatre. One succinct description of his play version sums it up as follows: a 'bleak , black, tragically funny tale of a wasted generation destroyed not by madness but by heroin.'
It is a new touring version of this play that Mrs GOB and I saw on Saturday afternoon, at the odd time of 4.00 pm. Presumably the producers hoped, by putting on the matinee performance at that hour, rather than the usual 2.30, to attract a younger type of audience. And in that they succeeded: Mrs GOB noted that the audience included quite a number of young women in pairs (for company, I think, rather than because of any lesbian relationship), and a number of young men who had made only irregular, and not recent, visits to the shower room.
The play features a flexible set, easily converted to represent quite a number of locations, and five actors sufficed to cover considerably more than five characters.
There are several things to be said about the play (in case you're thinking of seeing it). The first is that, as with the novel, the language is so Scottish as to be more or less incomprehensible unless you're used to it. The second is that it is unrelentingly filthy. I could recognise about three words in ten, on average, and two of those words were usually fuck and cunt. If there was an adjective employed other than fucking, during the entire evening, I missed it. And cunt was used as an all-purpose noun, meaning man, woman, friend, enemy, idiot, bright boy, and so forth. All the other four-letter words made their appearance at regular intervals.
Since the play is about a bunch of drug addicts, we got plenty of on-stage shooting up, with all the usual paraphernalia: belt round the arm to raise a vein, candle, spoon, and so forth. We had some nudity: at one point a junkie came on stage naked, failed to find a vein in any normal part of his body, and in the end injected himself in his penis.
Then we had some set pieces:
There was the one at the start, where the main character describes how he woke up in a strange bed, not knowing where he was, and discovered, to use his terms, that he had shat himself, puked up, and also, for good measure, soaked the bed in piss. The character then embarked on an account of how he gathered together the soiled sheets, set off to try to get them clean, but only succeeded (if I followed the story correctly) in showering his girl friend's parents with the contents.
Another set piece occurred (again I am assuming that I followed the drift of the story correctly), when a girl who was working as a waitress in a restaurant took offence at the manners of someone she was serving, and found an opportunity to mix the contents of her thoroughly soaked tampon with the customer's food. Another disliked customer was served profiteroles. the chocolate sauce on which had been liberally dosed with 'shite'.
There was a third story (just by way of example -- there were others) when one character described how he obtained some opium suppositories to dampen down the side-effects of his various drug-related aches and pains. Overtaken by a sudden and absolutely catastrophic attack of diarrhoea (copiously acted out), the young man eventually realised that he had unwittingly disposed of his two opium suppositories in the toilet bowl. Fortunately he had not yet flushed his prizes away, so he got down on his hands and knees, and groped about, up to his shoulder in shit (amusingly splattering the front rows of the audience as he did so), until he eventually found what he wanted. Then he shoved them back up his arse again.
Now... However appalling these stories may sound -- and they certainly are appalling -- they were performed on stage by some very skilled young actors who managed to make them funny. Even to me. And sitting behind me were some middle-aged women, of Scottish descent, who could clearly follow every word, and who cackled away like mad things.
A middle-aged couple sitting next to us did not return after the interval, but Mrs GOB and I are made of sterner stuff. We had found it just a tad tedious, frankly, being bombarded with this endless stream of obscenity, simulated sex, pregnant women being kneed in the stomach (and also shagged from behind in the toilet, a process graphically referred to as putting one's cock in the baby's mouth), junkies' babies being found dead, and so forth. But we had hopes that act two might be better.
It was. Considerably. Aided by some outstanding acting, the characters began to assume a curious kind of stature which somehow made them tragic and impressive. And, while I couldn't say that I had a very clear idea of what happened to them in the end, one felt somehow moved to have made their acquaintance. On the whole I was quite glad to have seen the play.
Which brings me back to my first point.
Times change, eh?
You won't remember, and you probably won't care, but censorship of stage plays was not abandoned in the UK until 1968, when I was nearly thirty years old. Prior to that date, every British play performed in a public theatre had to meet with the Lord Chamberlain's approval. And it is absolutely inconceivable that the Lord Chamberlain would ever have allowed even one mention of words such as fuck and cunt. Totally inconceivable. In the first production of Waiting for Godot, the word fart was found unacceptable, and belch had to be substituted. Homosexuality could not be mentioned on stage, and neither could Jesus. Anything remotely smutty, religious, or political, was banned.
So, in the 1960s, Trainspotting would never have got off the ground. The language, the nudity, the occasional blasphemy, the simulated sex, and the drug taking, all of these would have rendered it impossible of production.
Compare that with today. I have just re-read the review of this play which appeared last week in my local paper, the Wiltshire Times. This, you should understand, is a strictly regional newspaper devoted to reports of weddings, accounts of meetings of the Townswomen's guild and the like, and the local football scores. Short of something exciting, such as a stolen car, 'Dog cuts paw on canal bank' will be a front-page story.
What did this paper make of Trainspotting?
Well for a start the review said nothing about the language or the nudity. True, it did refer to a 'rollercoaster ride of drug-induced highs and unsettling lows', and 'black humour, with detours into tragedy and despair'. But there was no hint that you might get a short training course in how to use heroin, that you might hear some fairly revolting stories about getting your own back on rude customers, or, indeed, that you might see anything on stage which might perhaps cause any shock or offence. Not a whisper to the effect that this play might be anything out of the ordinary, or that it might provide a theatrical experience rather different from that of, say, Private Lives.
And who wrote this review? One Amy Watkins.
Well, all I can say is, she must be young.