Trainspotting Live in the MAC will rattle you yet make you choose life
Ahead of the new UK tour of Trainspotting Live pulling up at The MAC, artistic director and actor Greg Esplin tells Gail Bell how the audience become part of the show
THERE can't be many live shows that sound a triune warning of nudity, strong language and heavy drug and needle use before you even book your seat, but then, Trainspotting is not your average type of show.
In any case, you don't actually have a seat for the first 15 minutes of the new "no holds barred" stage production based on the eponymous 1996 cult film, a black comedy drama following the lives of a group of heroin addicts immersed in the Edinburgh drug scene of the 80s. Instead, audience members will be up dancing in a 'rave' rather than just sitting.
It is all part of the 'immersive' strategy adopted in the brash new adaptation from King's Head Theatre and In Your Face Theatre which bursts into The MAC later this month.
Although just returned from a phenomenally successful Australian tour and with the UK one about to kick off, artistic director of In Your Face Theatre, Greg Esplin, roused himself from his jet lag fog to give some insight as to what fans may expect from a show which has even shocked its author, Irving Welsh.
Welsh, who wrote the novel Trainspotting – brought to the big screen by Danny Boyle – is quoted as saying, "I was shocked... and I wrote the f***ing thing" – although Esplin says the novelist has given the "raw, hate-it or love it" production his full backing.
"He says he was blown away by it and that this is the way to experience Trainspotting which is great validation for us," says Esplin who, as well as having taken on the role of artistic director, plays the character of Tommy in the "repackaged", condensed adaptation revised from the original Harry Gibson script.
"We sort of made it our own and turned the play into one, coherent, narrative story rather than a bunch of random scenes," he says. "Instead of two hours and 40 minutes long, it's now 75 minutes, so everything is intensified, magnified and in your face.
"People don't like to sit too long these days and it also suits the atmosphere of the show which opens as a 15-minute rave. We drag people up to dance and they might even get a kiss from one of the boys."
The boys he refers to are the infamous names which became the zeitgeist of a generation: Renton, Tommy, Sick Boy, Begbie and Alison – all brought to life with humour, poetry and provocatively graphic action, including the notorious 'Worst Toilet in Scotland' scene.
So, what, erm, were the particular challenges of staging this part of the story, involving lead character, Renton, perched on a toilet with some opium suppositories?
A creative use of coffee and cocoa, apparently...
"It is very grim, but it has to be," Esplin tells me. "It may make you feel ill and it may be difficult to watch, but, at the same time, you won't be able to look away. Some members of the audience have been a bit splashed but some came back for a second experience – wearing rain-proof ponchos.
"It's another example of the interactive nature of Trainspotting which is to the fore again when Renton starts up a conversation with a person on a bus – who will be a different member of the audience in each performance. It could be anybody he picks out from the crowd.
"The audience is used to drive the story along and they end up being part of the cast."
The play – which (following the rave ) opens properly with Renton's seminal, 'Choose Life' speech, is much darker than the film and deliberately engineered to be claustrophobic, with the audience and Scottish cast barely a syringe-width apart.
As The MAC's newly installed creative director, Simon Magill, points out: "They're so close, they're in it."
Bringing such visceral material right into the heart of civilised theatre-land has been one of Magill's key objectives since taking up the newly created post last year.
"I am a fan of the film and I was tracking this adaptation for a while," he says. "I went to Edinburgh Festival to see it last year and it was set in an underground garage which gave it a certain edge.
"It's a little different in The MAC but the sets are still minimal to get across the emptiness, the grimness and the squalor of certain parts of Edinburgh... It is certainly unnerving, but its great strength is that it doesn't shy away from the euphoria of the highs while depicting the harrowing lows in graphic detail.
"Ultimately, I think Trainspotting will rattle you but, in the end, it is life-affirming – it makes you want to choose life."
As ever, the soundscape of the 80s dance scene maintains a steady beat throughout, which Esplin and Magill agree captures the "passion and controversy" of the original novel.
"With the Australian tour, we discovered the story is universal and nothing was lost in translation," Esplin adds, "Now we are all buzzing about Belfast. Every performance is different because of the audience and that's what keeps it fresh and relevant today."
:: Directed by Adam Spreadbury-Maher in collaboration with Greg Esplin, Trainspotting Live is on at The MAC from May 24 to May 27 (www.themaclive.com). Age 18+.