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Cain's Book and Beyond: Alan McKendrick

Lorna Irvine speaks with the acclaimed theatre-maker about his upcoming production.

Despite still only being in his mid-thirties, Untitled Projects' Writer-in-Residence Alan McKendrick is one of Scotland's most prolific theatre-makers, with work spanning performance, film, dance, theatre and opera. His breakthrough piece at The Arches, Finished with Engines, was shortlisted for the Meyer-Whitworth Award for new writing in 2006, and a solid, slyly humorous adaptation of The Changeling last year for PPP at Oran Mor was one of their finest.

Now he has embarked on what could be his most challenging work yet—a three-hour, immersive re-imagining of controversial Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi's classic novel Cain's Book for The Arches' Behaviour mini-festival. I caught up with him to find out more about the project, why he rails against creative complacency and what spurs him on.

Alexander Trocchi's work belongs to that lineage of dark, controversial writers, like De Quincey, Burroughs, Kavan, Acker, Bukowski and Welsh. Is it the dark stuff that appeals to your aesthetic?

I think of myself as working pretty exclusively within the field of comedy. Audiences have not always been unanimous in their agreement. But then fuck them if they can't take a joke.

I think of pretty much every writer you've cited above as being essentially comedic in nature – and I only say 'pretty much every' because I haven't yet read De Quincey. Given the company you've put him in, he's probably funny too, and I should correct the omission. From Burroughs and his malformed monologic routines to the laugh-out-loud theatrical scenes in Kathy Acker's My Death My Life by Pier Paolo Pasolini (the latter a huge influence on the first play I ever wrote, a bit overly in debt to Acker for the files ever to be released), I think what you're citing here are literary comedians.

It was interesting though how many conversations I had after last year's initial performances of Cain's Book with audience members who had responded to the novel very deeply, usually in their past lives as teenagers, and all of whom had apparently always seen it as a very dark, weighty, existential work – and these people were invariably surprised (typically pleasantly surprised) by the extent to which our theatrical production had drawn out and foregrounded the comedic nature of the text. But for myself, even when I was an above-averagely-serious teenager, even back then I always recognised this book as being hilariously funny. It's a brilliant joke book, and a brilliant inspiration, besides being a really provocative philosophical tract - and it cheers me up every time I so much as dip into it.

How did the band Smack Wizards come to be involved in the piece?

My first encounter with Smack Wizards was an entirely chance one – about four years back I attended one of the Winning Sperm Party nights at the Audio Lounge in Maryhill, which is a band practice studio. Winning Sperm Party were taking advantage of the excellent soundproofing between the different rooms in the building by having various acts play on a rotating basis across three of the rehearsal spaces – I think something like 16 different bands played sets over the course of that night. I had headed into one of the spaces to see a particular group, then after their set got caught in a conversation, never left the room and ended up about six feet away from Smack Wizards when they started playing as next act up, and just found them totally and instantly mesmerising.

Having finally gotten to know them recently in this context of this project, I've since learned that that was their first ever concert, and that they went onstage with a song to start with and a song to end with and pretty much invented everything else in between on the spot – which is just amazing as the set sounded incredibly coherent and arresting. On the one hand they go totally out there with their music in stylistic and aesthetic terms, and on the other hand they simultaneously firmly work within the ordered form of song.

Their sound has this incredible careening looseness and vivacity about it, sounding at all times as if it's about to spill out over every side at once, and yet at the same time you can tell that as players they're all three of them utterly in charge of what they're doing at all times, and totally in tune with one another as a unit. Something about their mix between this total mania and this absolute control really jibed with me, and I think makes them the absolute best sonic fit I can imagine for this production of Cain's Book.

The short answer to your question is that for me they're far and away the most interesting and original band operating out of Glasgow right now, and we're lucky to have them.

A three-hour show with film, projection, dance and live music is incredibly ambitious. Did you ever think, “What the hell am I getting myself into!”?

No, not in the slightest. I lament instead as to why almost everybody else making theatre in this country right now is so doggedly unambitious. Most contemporary British theatre might as well be people coming onstage and incanting 'Ug mug tug dug' to the tune of Little Bo Peep for two hours. No wonder the majority of people don't like going to the theatre. It's awful.

If you look at the overlap between the visual art and music scenes in Glasgow right now, it's extraordinary and vivid, and really resonant work goes on in and across both camps. And theatre mostly just exists in this little dead side pocket where hardly anybody in their right mind gives a damn. But the theatre is like the musical or the romantic comedy – it's an amazing format, it's just that so few people are doing it well anymore.

To get back to your question, in the last iteration of Cain I did have a moment about halfway through the dress rehearsal where watching it I felt this sudden wrenching joyous but still vaguely nauseous jab of 'Oh wow, what the hell have we done?' But it was an exhilarating jab, that jab. And I hope to be chasing that feeling again in every piece of work I ever get to make subsequently. Or at least I'd better be, else then it's my turn to go home and quit. As I should.

So I suppose that the last thing to say on the topic is that in our striving to present a work on this scale on the slender timescale and budget available to us, yeah OK I'll concede it is ambitious by any yardstick, and will concede also that there's always every possibility that by reaching so far we may end up with blood on the floor at the end of the evening – figuratively or literally. Sure. But I always find it more exciting to see a singer going for a note they can't quite comfortably reach, than just watching some competent, dreary old carthorse plodding through their comfort zone.

Again, though, a good bracing challenge is healthy. And if there's one thing the many different people involved in this production have in common, it's not shying away from that.

Both Red Bastard and Clout Theatre told me in interviews that they think modern theatre audiences are more receptive to the shock of the new. Do you agree with that statement?

There are great, vast, smart, cultured audiences out there in Glasgow (and beyond) who are interested in the joys and virtues and disciplines and transcendent nature of live performance, and by and large I feel they are not being well-catered to, at least not by the broad mainstream front of the theatrical sector. Most of these audiences are totally ripe for engagement with any carefully stylised live aesthetic event. But they are finding it at gigs, at clubs, in galleries more often than not – because for all that they range widely and do not discriminate by genre, and don't put too much stock by any one label or category, theatre has too often let them down to not be discriminated against in this regard. And quite rightly.

These are the people who should come to see Cain's Book – we will not disappoint you like the others. And even if we do, we will at least not disappoint you in the same way. But in a new one.

Cain's Book is at The Arches from 27th-29th March.

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