When David Leddy visited Barcelona to research his new play, The Last Bordello, which opens in Glasgow next week, he went in search of a brothel. In a city which has an Erotic Museum that caters to hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, Leddy was far from the first tourist to embark on such a quest in the city’s Barrio Chino red light district, and he certainly won’t be the last.
Leddy, however, was looking for a very particular establishment, one which had been made famous on several counts, and which formed part of the inspiration for Jean Genet’s 1947 novel, Querelle de Brest. Genet’s existential yarn about sailors, prostitutes and drug addicts formed the basis for what turned out to be the final film directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the posthumously released Querelle.
On Leddy’s arrival, the establishment in question, Madame Petite’s, alas, was no more. Bull-dozed away, the once thriving house of ill-repute had been bull-dozed away, reduced to a pile of rubble at the end of a street now named after the author who helped make it even more famous than it already was.
“It was the most notorious brothel in Europe,” Leddy says of the object of his pilgrimage. “It catered for every desire under the sun.”
All of which has been channelled into Leddy’s largest work to date. A co-production between the internationally renowned maverick writer/director’s Fire Exit company and the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, The Last Bordello is finally opening its doors to a paying public after a mammoth ten years in development. Set among the bordello’s inhabitants, the play includes one character who thinks she might be black power civil rights activist turned academic, Angela Davis, and another who believes she can resell her virginity night after night. Then there is the sailor who writes dirty stories down at the docks on a battered old type-writer in-between servicing clients. Politics and profanity rub up against each other in an X-rated mix of reference points and redemption, with the spirit of Genet at the play’s unreliable heart.
“The starting point for me came from watching a biographical play on the Fringe about Dorothy Parker,” says Leddy of the show’s roots. “It was a solo show with one woman at a type-writer, but I was really bored, and started wondering how you might make a good biographical play. That raised questions about truth in biography, and truths and lies in history in general. Jean Genet was the perfect example of someone who fictionalised his life and his background, and who became an example of high post-modernism, but he’s also someone who campaigned for Palestine, became a friend of Angela Davis, and gave up writing to become a political campaigner.”
Key to the creation of The Last Bordello have been Anne Bogart and Neil Bartlett, two major figures of international theatre. As co-artistic director of the Saratoga International Theatre Institute (SITI), Bogart’s work has operated in counterpoint to more naturalistic approaches to theatre. Neil Bartlett’s early work with the Gloria company such as A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep and Sarrasine have had a clear influence on The Last Bordello. Bartlett also directed the first English language production of Jean Genet’s play, Splendid’s.
“I saw Anne Bogart do a show in Colorado when I was out doing my show Susurrus,” says Leddy, “and watching it I thought it was exactly the sort of work I wanted The Last Bordello to be.”
Bogart worked on two readings of Leddy’s play, and might have ended up directing it if other commitments hadn’t got in the way. Bartlett’s input on the show was arguably even more significant.
“Of all the theatre-makers who’ve influenced me, Neil’s influenced me the most,” says Leddy of the writer/director who similarly fuses various influences on his work, and who has recently become Leddy’s mentor. “He’s remarkable, and for me he’s the most adventurous theatre-maker around. Both his and Anne Bogart have challenged me as a writer. Over the ten years I’ve been working on The Last Bordello, I’ve obviously been making other work, and all of that has helped my development as a writer hugely. I think there’s still an intellectual and emotional heart to what I do, but The Last Bordello wouldn’t be the show I hope it will be without everything that’s gone before it I terms of development.”
Given the expansive internationalist ambition of The Last Bordello, it’s tragic that Leddy’s production opens in the aftermath of the decision by Scotland’s arts funding quango Creative Scotland to cut Fire Exit from their portfolio of regularly funded organisations. While five theatre companies have seen similar decisions reversed this week following a humiliating U-Turn by Creative Scotland in what has clearly been a shambolic process riven with mismanagement and incompetence at every level, the decision regarding Fire Exit still stands. With Fire Exit having increased audiences and output over the last two years while remaining financially and managerially sound, Creative Scotland’s decision has been particularly galling.
As one might imagine, it has also made for an unnecessary strain during a crucial period in rehearsals for The Last Bordello. Despite future partnerships in place with Edinburgh International Book Festival, the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, British Council Chile and the Take Me Somewhere Festival, Fire Exit’s future as a working entity looks far from certain.
“The company may have to close,” says Leddy. “We couldn’t exist on project funding. When we were on that before I worked full time for twelve months, and was paid for two, and I’m not in a position to go back to that. I would rather change careers than earn pennies.”
Over the last decade, Leddy has built up a body of work, including hit shows Sub Rosa, Long Live the Little Knife, International Waters and Coriolanus Vanishes. In almost any other country, this would be regarded as the canon of a unique auteur who has been developing his craft all his life, and which needed looking after.
“I’ve been doing this job since I was twelve,” says Leddy. “Since my late teens I’ve concentrated on doing contemporary experimental work, so there’s not a lot of scope for freelance work beyond that for someone like me. On a purely practical level, if I can’t sustain the company I’d rather stop doing theatre and do something else, even though the company’s in better shape than it’s ever been. That feels particularly heart-breaking.”
If Fire Exit is forced to close and Leddy stops making theatre, Creative Scotland have some serious questions to answer. While The Last Bordello hopefully won’t be Fire Exit’s last show, an already multi-faceted piece might just have stumbled on a whole new layer of meaning.
“I’ve always created work about abuses of power,” says Leddy. “It’s not lost on me that while I’m making a show about a brothel being bull-dozed away, my company is threatened with closure. That would make me a madam, but that’s okay, bring it on. I have my tiara ready.”
“I often make shows as well that are a Trojan horse, and to me, The Last Bordello plays with the idea of why people are attracted to brothels. I think we’re attracted to them because we think they’re saucy and fun, when in reality they’re dark and brutal places. But by the time you realise that it’s too late. The door is already locked.”
The Last Bordello, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, February 13-17; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, February 21-24.
The Herald, February 8th 2018