Kieran Hurley never planned for Beats to become a film. When he first wrote and performed his solo stage play about the personal and political coming of age of the 1990s rave generation, it was just him and a DJ up there with a criss-crossing narrative that told how hedonists were politicised by default. This happened in response to section 63 of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which, by legislating against gatherings of twenty or more people (100 in Scotland) in close proximity to repetitive beats, effectively aimed to criminalise outdoor raves.
Seven years on, the big-screen version of Beats has seen Hurley and director Brian Welsh broaden out the story to make it an era-defining rites of passage. With Steven Soderbergh as one of the film’s executive producers, Beats premiered in Rotterdam, and comes home next month when it closes the Glasgow Film Festival prior to a general release scheduled for May.
“It wasn’t something I went looking for,” says Hurley, “but the stage play of Beats was a bit of a breakthrough for me, and set off this chain of events so we’re at the point where we are now. If you look at that, I’m one of the last of a generation to have come through the support network which the Arches gave me.”
Hurley is talking about the now closed Glasgow arts centre which over its almost quarter-century existence was a crucible of activity for young artists working outside the mainstream. It was here Hurley presented his first work-in-progress version of Beats at the Arches Live festival. The play went on to win the Arches Platform 18 award, which saw Beats have a short run at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. This in turn led to an Edinburgh Festival Fringe run, followed dates at the Bush Theatre in London prior to a longer run at Soho Theatre. It was also named as best play at the Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland.
It was while Beats was at the Bush that the theatre’s associate director Omar Elerian pointed Welsh in Hurley’s direction. With Beats filmed in stark black and white, looks set to evoke an era that democratised the dancefloor and brought people together in ways which other artforms sometimes struggle. In relation to this, Hurley observes how, “In many ways, the rave scene was the last musical subculture to be properly mythologised in the same way punk has. When we were doing the play that hadn’t happened yet, though it’s begun to happen now.”
The years between the play and the film have seen Hurley’s stage work continue to look at class and culture through the likes of Heads Up and Square Go. His recent play, Mouthpiece, premiered at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2018, and opens at Soho in the run up to the film’s release, with both featuring actor Lorn Macdonald in a leading role. While there are clear umbilical links between the characters of Declan, the instinctive artist in Mouthpiece, and Spanner, one of two teenage boys on the cusp of adulthood in Beats, as far as the film overall is concerned, stage and screen versions are poles apart.
“Working on the film was a totally different experience to what I was used to,” says Hurley. “As a writer, your relationship with the process is really different, and whereas doing theatre you’re at the coal-face of things, I signed off on the film two years ago. In terms of storytelling I learnt a lot, and had to go from me doing the play in third person and using direct address, to expanding the lives of these two boys and having a much wider range of characters.”
While this makes the film as much a buddy movie between Spanner and Johnno, played by Cristian Ortega, as the pair have one final big time before their lives change, there is a much broader political backdrop which stems from Hurley’s own observations of a scene he only saw second-hand.
“I was nine in 1994,” he says, “but I had an interest in music culture and the rave scene from when I was partying myself during my twenties, when I was also involved in grassroots activism. I became interested in that scene’s musical heritage and its political history, because when the Kill the Bill campaign started to happen in response to the Criminal Justice Bill, it politicised party-goers and changed the face of activism.
“There’s not a lot of stuff about Kill the Bill in the film, but at the back of my mind, it’s about what happens when young people claim space on their own terms and find a sense of identity or community through that. That in itself isn’t explicitly political. It’s more about hedonism. But when the government tries to legislate against that, and criminalise an identity, then people are going to respond. Once it becomes a protest movement and different people are getting involved, it becomes radicalising and solidarity building.”
This is significant in Beats at a personal level as much as a political one.
“A lot of my work has been about the search for the collective or the communal,” says Hurley. “On one level, Beats is about a boy looking for something else in life, and it’s also about how we need each other, and that’s not going to go away in a hurry.”
Beats also marks the end of a particular era in club culture.
“It wasn’t just the Criminal Justice Bill that killed off the club scene,” he says. “It was already dying, and was being killed off by the forces of capital.”
Hurley is referring here to the rise of the superclub, where the party grew into a global concern. While a mainstream club culture continues to exist, more forward looking concerns are getting back to their roots and going underground once more.
“Now,” says Hurley, “part of the story is about what happens to cities during times of austerity. People don’t have the money, but as long as people are putting on little nights in flats or in the back rooms of pubs, it will never die.”
Hurley points to the late Martyn Bennett, who fused club beats and ceilidh music so effectively, to illustrate the various autonomous zones co-opted for the right to party in a way that sounds not a million miles away from theatre guru Peter Brook’s notion of the empty space.
“Martyn Bennett talked about the empty walls of a nightclub and the empty space of a bothy being the same thing. They’re both spaces waiting to be filled. Whether that’s for a ceilidh or a club night in a wee back room, it’s the same thing.”
Beats is screened as part of Glasgow Film Festival on March 3 at 10pm, and goes on general release in May. The Traverse Theatre production of Mouthpiece runs at Soho Theatre, London, April 2-May 4.
The Herald, February 14th 2019