Things have changed since Kieran Hurley first began writing the play that would become Mouthpiece, which opens at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh this weekend. At the time, Hurley was, in his own words, “quite new on the scene.” As a writer and performer, he had already scored hits with Beats and Chalk Farm, two pieces that put him on the map with a new generation of theatre-makers steeped in an equally new wave of grassroots opposition that drew from the iconography of revolutions past. Where Beats looked at the politicisation of 1990s club culture, Chalk Farm, co-written with AJ Taudevin, focused on a teenage boy caught up in the 2011 London riots.
More plays followed. Some, like Heads Up used the same solo story-telling aesthetic to look at an everyday apocalypse. More recently, Square Go, written with Gary McNair, dissected toxic masculinity through a school playground fight.
All the while as Hurley developed as a writer, from new kid on the block to established provocateur, this new play was growing with him, changing as he changed. Stories were thrown away and both form and content were changed. The result, seen in co-production with Hurley’s HighTide company, is a very different play to how it started.
Set initially on Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh, it brings together Declan, a teenage boy from Pilton, and a middle-aged New Town woman Libby. Where Libby was once a committed writer who has lost her mojo in the throes of a mid-life crisis, Declan is a naturally gifted artist who, coming from the background he does, would never dare define himself as such. The alliance that results sees Libby embark on what might be seen as a form of cultural tourism in a play that asks questions about access to artistic expression across a class divide. In a Jekyll and Hyde city like Edinburgh, this becomes even more marked.
“It was one of these things where much of the original idea ends up going in the bin,” Hurley says regarding the roots of Mouthpiece. “It ended up going through several different phases, and kept pushing me in different directions. In terms of the play itself, I guess the original impulse came from me grappling with confusions about class identity and class consciousness.
“I’d written Beats and Chalk Farm, and they were about characters who felt innately familiar to me, but at the same time I was working in the arts, which, at some point, almost all of us are afforded access to that world through various forms of privilege. There are shades of grey here, but it made me think about what that meant to me as a writer and the stories I’m telling.
There’s something about a legitimacy of voice, and about whose stories need to be told, but there’s also something about who gets to tell those stories, and where that line is drawn.”
Artists from privileged backgrounds telling stories about the poor or disenfranchised is far from a new thing. From Charles Dickens’ fictionalised portraits of poverty-stricken London through to the very different films made respectively by Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, the travails of the working classes at various points in history have been portrayed with various shades of partisan artistry. Even the late John McGrath’s work with 7:84, which used popular theatrical forms to explore various forms of social and economic disenfranchisement, arguably came from a place of privilege.
“This is where it becomes complicated,” says Hurley. “It was really important that Dickens was writing about poorhouses, but in a society where certain people are excluded from certain worlds, it’s also really important that they tell their stories. At the same time, writing Mouthpiece has been part of exploring my own feelings and questions around that. It’s very important as writers that we retain the right to write stories that aren’t necessarily analogous to our own experiences. At the same time there are important conversations about cultural appropriation, and as a white middle-class man I have to be sure to listen to that, and engage with that.
“I like to think I’m quite disciplined about treading that line, but in a cultural sector in which audiences are by and large hugely middle class, marginalised voices can become commodified as a kind of sexy aesthetic, and are only made possible by this hermetically sealed bubble of middle class whiteness. You can go to some theatres with my accent and feel alienated and completely out of place, so there’s a spectrum there, and it’s complicated.”
The form of Mouthpiece may be different to how it started out, but there is a recognisable through line from Beats through to Chalk Farm and Square Go.
“I have a tendency to write working class boys,” says Hurley, “but I’m not writing autobiographically in any way. There are elements of me in both characters in Mouthpiece, but neither of them are me. The play is about the relationship between these two people as much as anything else going on. I know writers writing about writers writing a play sounds about as meta as it gets, but it’s also kind of love story in a way. I’m a great believer that theatre should be a good night out as much as anything.”
As with all of Hurley’s work, this underlying sense of empathy with everyday domestic struggles is what gives his plays their own sense of authenticity that helps illustrate their bigger picture. Mouthpiece may focus on the very pertinent questions of access to the arts both for audiences and would-be practitioners, but it keeps things grounded just as Hurley attempts to in the face of his own successes.
“It isn’t a big black and white message play,” he says, “but I hope it says something about who gets to tell stories, about the stories that are excluded and some of the complexities around class around all that. It’s about who does or doesn’t get to produce art and culture in society. Out of that comes a much bigger conversation about privilege and power.”
Mouthpiece, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, December 5-22.
The Herald, November 29th 2018