There’s a photograph of playwright Gregory Burke taken the night he won his Best new Play Olivier award for Black Watch, his phenomenal collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland. In the picture, a somewhat perturbed looking Burke, dressed in a suit and tie, top button undone, holds his award in front of him. Standing next to Burke, and with his arm avuncularly resting on Burke’s shoulder, is the much taller figure of David Hare, who presented the award at the lengthy Grosvenor House ceremony. As a symbolic baton is passed from the figurehead of the post 1968 generation of leftist-leaning liberal playwrights to a writer who grew up into what until recently looked like a post ideological age, any umbilical link between the two men there is beyond their shared craft is far from obvious.
One can’t imagine Hare, for instance, following an epic warts and all depiction of squaddies in Iraq such as Black Watch with a chamber piece about the aftermath of an Amsterdam stag weekend so debauched that the groom to be never recovers. Yet, with Hoors, which opens at the Traverse Theatre in May in a co-production between the Traverse and the Theatre Royal, Bath, that’s exactly what Burke has done.
“It’s a straight comedy,” Burke says matter of factly, “about a guy who dies on his stag night, and who has his wake the night before when the wedding was supposed to be. That’s what we do in my house, we get the coffin back so everyone can pay their respects. The guy’s fiance’s there, and everyone’s had a pint. I suppose it’s about the end of an era of consumer filled hedonism that we’ve just been through, and about how long before you move on. Here’s something that was meant to be a celebration, but has now turned into this economic disaster.”
Of his own celebrations at the Oliviers, Burke was as surprised as the rest of the Black Watch team at scooping four awards.
“I thought we’d get one or two,” he says, “but I never expected to get Best New Play. It just seems to have been pre-ordained or something.”
There is the anomaly too of a play which premiered in Edinburgh in 2006 only being eligible for the Oliviers after its London dates at the Barbican in 2008. This despite winning everything from the South Bank Show award to our own Herald Angel. The somewhat belated recognition for Black watch stems from the archaic rules for the Oliviers set down by the Society of London Theatres, which many venues in London can’t even afford to join.
“It is all pretty incongruous,” Burke admits, “but I’m happy to take an award anytime.”
Whether Hoors wins similar plaudits to Black Watch remains to be seen, though even at this stage you get the impression there’s a lot more going on in the play than Burke is letting on about. While Hoors may be far from a state of the nation address, you sense that Burke is down-playing any pressures involved in following up what has proved to be one of the most important artistic events of the twenty-first century so far. This is perfectly understandable, and something Burke recognises from the success of his debut work, Gagarin Way, in 2001.
That play, about a cell of really rubbish Scottish terrorists who kidnap an international industrialist who turns out to be from the same Fife town as them, tapped into a generation of dole queue dissidents disillusioned with mainstream politics. In hindsight, it can be seen as the last expression of that era’s rebels without a cause before a new generation was re-politicised by events in Iraq.
“I didn’t feel like I was a writer then,” Burke says of his first international hit, “so I wasn’t really sure what I should do next. Since Black Watch it’d been different, and I was really loathe to finish something else while it was still rolling its way around the world, just wondering when would be the right time to put something on.”
Burke had a longer wait than anticipated, as Black Watch toured to New York, Los Angeles and Australia before finally playing in London. During that time, as well as being under commission to the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal National Theatre and a new piece for the NTS, as well as a forthcoming drama for BBC Scotland, Burke underwent his own life changes, and has become a father. Perhaps it’s this air of responsibility that has seen him write female characters for the first time, albeit ones as potty-mouthed as their male counterparts.
“I grew up around a lot of strong women,” says Burke. “They all talked as big and opinionated as some of the men. It’s great to be able to undercut that whole male thing, where if there’s an argument and there’s a potential of violence, if there are women around, that keeps the sand shifting under their feet even more. Maybe I’ll be pilloried by the feminist community, I don’t know,” he says, not sounding overly concerned.
While Hoors sets its store in a recognisably domestic milieu, “a four-hander that’s all about the text,” as Burke puts it, his forthcoming works look set to be on a bigger scale. Rather than the contemporary world which he’s engaged with in all his works thus far, some at least will have historical settings.
“One of them was originally about the Scottish Enlightenment,” says Burke, “but is becoming something else. I’m still only at the first draft stage, so I don’t know yet, but they might all end up becoming historical pieces. Wirth the banking crisis, if you look to the past, while it’s not cyclical, there are definitely precedents there where things collapse and there’s no social or political certainty anymore. In Scotland, the banks and soldiering were the only industries that were left. Well, what is there now? That element of Scottishness, about being canny and trustworthy, that’s all gone now.”
It will be some time before audiences see the results of Burke’s forthcoming adventures, though by the sound of it, maybe his interests aren’t that far removed from David Hare’s after all. Any suspicion that Burke has been gentrified, however, are soon up-ended by some home-grown Fife wisdom.
“If you look back to the eighteenth century and Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist,” Burke enthuses, “there’s an entire play that’s about wide boys fleecing people.”
Hoors, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, previews May 1-3, then May 5-23
The Herald, March 19th 2009