Tam Dean Burn and Luke Sutherland make quite a double act. Where actor Burn is all restless energy, bouncing round his flat, burning CDs, seeking out Walkman size headphones, talking ten to the dozen, if novelist and musician Sutherland were any more laid back on the sofa, he’d probably fall off it. There’s an attentive if cautious warmth to Sutherland’s quiet calm, though, just as there is to Burn’s hyper-active enthusiasm for whatever he happens to be doing at any given moment. Which is probably why such a Yin and Yang pairing work together so well.
Or rather, hopefully work together so well when they bring Burn’s dramatisation of Sutherland’s 2004 novella, Venus As A Boy, to Edinburgh this week. Performed by Burn, with a live musical score by Sutherland, who was the driving force behind the band Long Fin Killie, this last confession from Cupid, a dieing man blessed with the power of giving sexual ecstasy to others, is both lyrical and brutal in its unsentimental account. Moving from Orkney to London, stopping off in Edinburgh prior to Cupid’s steady, self-destructive decline as a loveless rent boy, Sutherland’s magical narrative looks set to be transformed by Burn into a solo flight of fancy that looks to oral story-telling without ever being a literary reading.
“Finding a theatricality for it was hard,” Burn admits. “It was like trying to sculpt the drama out of it, but the story kept on retreating back to its own shape, and that was hard. I kept trying to convert things from the past tense and into the present tense so I could be in the moment, but that was getting away from the story-telling aspect of it, and we had to get back to doing something really simple, and creating magic out of nothing.”
Magic of one sort or another plays a big part in Venus As A Boy. Even how the project came together in the first place is down to chance meetings and synchronicity. Burn and Sutherland had met several years before at the launch of Sutherland’s debut novel, Jelly Roll in 1998. With shared interests in story-telling, music and William Blake, a collaboration of some kind was inevitable, even if it did take a while to get there.
As a long-time maverick working beyond orthodox theatre, Burn had already performed a solo version of Irvine Welsh’s novel, Filth, and had adapted The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh for the same tiny studio space at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre. He had also set himself the task of reading the collected works of William Blake live on Resonance FM, the left-field radio station set up by the London Musicians Collective. Having already had his interest pricked by reading about Sutherland’s then still unpublished novel in Time Out, Burn attempted to contact the author, but had lost his phone number.
Sitting on a London bus the next day, who should breeze down the stairs but Sutherland himself, en route to his publishers to pick up proof copies of the book. Before Sutherland alighted at his stop, hasty arrangements were made to meet up in a bar the next day. Sutherland took the proof copies with him to the bar, setting in motion a circuitous saga of development, work-shopping and, crucially, selling the idea to The St Magnus festival in Orkney.
“They said no at first,” Burn says. “It took three meetings between them and the National Theatre Of Scotland to convince them. I’d already had meetings with them and been told that they didn’t think that people on Orkney were quite ready for something like this. So we were banging our heads against a brick wall for a long time.”
“Tam charmed them into it,” Sutherland says of Burn’s low-key approach to the audience present at its opening dates on Orkney. “Then he gradually takes them into the more extreme stuff.”
The response at the end of the opening night was little short of electric. For Burn, this “totally vindicated what we were trying to do, because we proved that the Orkney audience was more than ready for something like this.”
As the setting for the book’s opening, the idea of following the route of the book as the play toured was an appealing enough concept. As an adopted child and the only black face on a notoriously insular island, it was also an emotional return.
“It was hugely resonant for me,” Sutherland says. “It was really emotional. Especially because my Dad died in 2006, so that was a bit of extra cargo, and my Mum came up to see it. She hadn’t been back to Orkney for years, so it had a huge impact on us both.”
Onstage every night, listening to his own words presented in a different form, helped distance Sutherland from a book littered with casual bullying which he himself faced as a child when he escaped into literature in an attempt to widen his world. This may be why sex and violence have informed much of his own literary output since then.
“Our family was like a miniature league of nations,” Sutherland says of his white parents and mixed race brothers and sisters, “who arrived in 1976 in the remotest place in the world. My cultural precedents reached as far as The Black and White Minstrel Show and Roots and Lenny Henry, so to create a wider context for myself I just read and read and read more and more about the world. The more rigid constructs of race and nationality just started to collapse, and I started to exist in and become aware of this real beautiful complexity and idiosyncrasy, which meant there was real space for an anomaly like me. That’s what I try to do with writing, trying to expand what my conception of what the world is so I can find some breathing space.”
Burn has recently traced his love of literature back to his own childhood, when he would adapt parts of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn for his own amusement.
“Speaking directly to the audience has always interested me,” he says of some of the political choices behind Venus As A Boy’s presentation. “You have to remember that the audience is always there, and that you’re going on a journey together.”
With a film adaptation of Venus As A Boy also ongoing without either Sutherland or Burn’s involvement, it’s clear the book – and, by all accounts, the play – has tapped into something for both readers and audiences alike. Some might look at the story’s spiritual endeavours as a piece of magical realism, though someone coined the phrase, ‘real magical,’ which Sutherland seems to prefer. Either way, Venus As A Boy has already transcended its origins to become a fully-fledged 21st century myth.
While Sutherland is too modest to describe his work in such grandiose terms, Burn is unabashedly evangelical about it.
“It’s a memorial to the guy who’s telling the story,” Burn says, “Looking at it next to Blake, you realise that it’s a plea for forgiveness. There’s a line Blake wrote, ‘The glory of Christianity is to conquer by forgiveness.’ That concept, to conquer by forgiveness, is just wonderful.”
Venus As A Boy, Traverse Theatre, Aug 2-26, various times
The Herald, August 2007