Sunday, 20 March 2011

Gagarin Way

When Gregory Burke’s debut play, Gagarin Way, first appeared at
Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in the summer of 2001, it’s thesis on the
apparent death of socialism via a bunch of rubbish terrorists in Fife
inadvertently marked the end of an era. While Gagarin Way summed up in
part an age of apathy where violence was for kicks rather than a cause,
before the year was out, the destruction of the World Trade Centre in
New York changed everything. A decade later, with few taking David
Cameron’s big society in any way seriously, and with the Con-Dem
alliance provoking riots on the streets of London, protest is very much
back on the agenda.

Rapture Theatre’s tenth anniversary revival of Burke’s play, which has
just opened in Dunfermline prior to its current tour, looks more timely
than ever. Looking back on the work that put him on the map and opened
the door for the even bigger success of Black Watch, Burke for one
suggests that Gagarin Way isn’t as big a political statement as some
people make out.

“It’s a weird one,” Burke says on the eve of a trip to Washington where
Black Watch is currently touring. “Reading Gagarin Way again, and even
reading Black Watch, you can see bits of it that jar. Gagarin Way
doesn’t even feel much like a play, more a series of monologues. Don’t
get me wrong, it’s still funny, but it does feel very much like a first
play in capital letters. It was the first thing I ever wrote, so
looking at it now it feels a hundred years old. I wasn’t thinking about
the text when I wrote it. I was thinking about the ideas. Then a month
after it came out 9/11 happened. That didn’t rob the play of its
relevance, but it changed the game in terms of politics, and I think it
makes points about protest that are even more relevant now, even
though, as a writer, and as a playwright, I look at things in a much
more technical way.”

Taking its name from a street in Lumphinnans in Fife that was itself
named in honour of Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, who was the first
man to travel in space, Gagarin Way is centred around the kidnap of a
man seen as the epitome of capitalism. This sets up a debate about how
a once staunchly left wing working class community was decimated by the
effects of Thatcherism. The play arrived on the heels of a generation
of writers who were either questioning how political idealism had been
ditched in favour of a culture of hedonism, or else were ignoring
politics entirely.

As Rapture celebrate their own tenth birthday, their production of
Gagarin Way may well tap into a whole new set of meanings. Make no
mistake, however. While dissenting voices onstage now need to be heard
more urgently than ever before, Burke is no flag-waving keeper of the
left wing flame, and has no desire to be a spokesperson for his
generation. Rather, he too is a product of the generation who lost
faith. In Washington, for instance, Black Watch may be visited by
representatives of the Pentagon, but Burke is more interested in the
more celebrity-friendly part of the guest list with whom politics
almost certainly won’t be on the agenda.

“People do still pick up on the left wing politics in the play,” Burke
says of Gagarin Way, “but it’s not really about that. Maybe that’s
something to do with the fact that the play is humorous and doesn’t
preach. At the time, when it was touring abroad or being produced in
different countries, I would go round the world with it at all these
different openings to drink in a variety of different locations. That
was my grand scheme, to have fun. But at after-show discussions people
would expect you to be some kind of revolutionary and would tell them
something about that. You’d get all these anarchist groups turning up,
and the play wasn’t about that at all. For me the play was about the
paradox of not being interested in all that. From a historical
perspective that really interest me. It was the same with Black Watch.
They both ask where do you stand on things, and how will you stand in
the future. These things interest me rather than the nitty-gritty. Lots
of people in theatre want to tear down the walls of society, but if you
tear down all the walls, then there’ll be no theatre.”

Gagarin Way, Carnegie Hall, Dunfermline, February 18th; East Kilbride
Arts Centre, February 19th; Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, February 23rd;
Eastfield Community Centre, Cambuslang, February 24th;MacRobert Arts
Centre, Stirling; February 25th; Palace Theatre, Kilmarnock, February
26th, then tours.
www.raptutretheatre.co.uk

The Herald, February 2011

ends

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