Gagarin Way , the Tarantinoesque hit of the Edinburgh Festival, is a backward-looking play that is eclipsing risk-taking projects, argues Greg Giesekam.
Few observers of theatre will not now know of Gregory Burke, whose first play, Gagarin Way , a runaway hit at the Traverse during the Edinburgh Festival, will appear at the National Theatre in September. Pictures of his shaven head and steely stare have adorned countless profiles as the media hype yet another writer as the British Tarantino on the basis of what is actually a conservative, backward-looking work - despite its caustic wit, scatological language and bloody climax.
The National rarely does first plays and almost never Scottish plays, especially one by a 32-year-old who has spent the past ten years working in factories (after ditching economics at university, a fact that slightly spoils the "raw working-class Scot" stereotype that accounts of him play to). Burke's meteoric rise and a higher rate of "****s" and "****s" per 100 words than Irvine Welsh make him a press officer's dream, at a time when the brutalism of "in-yer-face" theatre seems to be the sine qua non for a theatre wishing to appear young and relevant. Along with a stage version of Reservoir Dogs , this year's Fringe Programme boasted such titles as Nasty Boy , Shagnasty , Geeza and Loaded , accompanied by promises of "hardcore entertainment", "right realistic violence" and "comic menace - Laurel and Hardy meet Tarantino". Even the Official Festival warned of the "strong language" of Shan Khan's Office - set among King's Cross pimps and drug dealers.
Leaving aside the amnesia that imagines violence did not appear on the modern British stage before Tarantino, it is puzzling to find critics praising Gagarin Way as if it injected something new into the past decade's stream of high-testosterone plays in which multiple rapes, murders and torture are often framed by a cynical humour.
The plot is simple and familiar - two factory workers kidnap a manager from head office and regale him, and a hapless security guard who has stumbled into the situation, with accounts of their lives and views on the collapse of resistance to multinational capitalism. The more articulate and violent of the two, Eddie, then kills a businessman and a guard - despite a bungled attempt to shoot them and his collaborator's change of mind. Plot simplicity is matched by formal conservatism: a single-location play adhering to unities of plot and time, it relies primarily on verbal exchanges between its four characters and a charismatic central performance to seduce and dominate the audience.
There is plenty of scabrous humour, as in Eddie's comments on Sartre's support of Genet: "Any **** who comes up way a theory that thieves are only interested in your gear so they can achieve coincidence ay the consciousness ay the subject way its own objective reality is a fanny."
The knowingness exhibited here, in references to the Situationists' role in Paris 1968 and so on, is typical of the way Burke derives humour from apparent incongruities between speaker, register and content, and from flattering an audience clued in enough to get the references. When the captive calls Eddie an anarchist, he retorts, "I'm no a ****ing anarchist. I dinnay like labels. No unless they're on my clothesI I've kinda been outflanked by the fluid nature ay modern demographicsI have you not heard there's a crisis in masculinity at the moment?' Such knowingness also produces a sly dig at the audience, when Eddie describes Sartre parading Genet round "as a wee novelty act for taking tay parties and that, ken like as the cabaretI there's nothing the general public likes better than a vicarious wander through the world ay the full-time criminal".
Although reviewers have praised the play's wide political scope, what we find is just a hit list of current tropes to do with globalisation, the collapse of socialism, heritage theme parks, gender politics and the like, which deceives the audience into imagining it has been thinking when all it has been doing is taking a "vicarious wander". The play is less an exploration of politics in a post-ideological age than an exploitation of the rhetorical potential of such an idea, less concerned with the desperate lives of victims of late capitalism than with commodifying the cynicism induced in them.
Burke has quoted Behan on getting people laughing then stopping the laughter. He tries this near the end, when Eddie slashes the businessman across the throat and stage blood pours everywhere. But by then the audience is inured against seeing this as anything more than generic violence - part of the expected thrills and spills, just a laugh.
Against the background of media hype for such plays, sight is easily lost of more formally and thematically challenging productions. Also at the Traverse is Tiny Dynamite , Abi Morgan's tale of a friendship between two men and a woman, which drew on collaboration with Improbable 's Julian Crouch and Frantic Assembly performers. Imaginative use of set, lighting, video, music and movement made a much more sensuous live event, while the emerging tensions between the characters and the different approaches to life they embody demanded a more active engagement of spectators, as we pieced together interwoven fragments of past and present and tales of fantastic events garnered from newspapers. A quieter, yet more theatrically inventive production, its lack of "sensation" seemed to qualify it as dull among the critical fraternity.
"Dull" could hardly be applied to two other productions that are far more transgressive than the confected confrontation of many wannabe-Tarantino scripts: Nabil Shaban's I Am the Walrus and Mat Fraser's Sealboy: Freak . Presented in Theatre Workshop's "Degenerate Festival", a season of disability artists' work, they were practically ignored by the press, presumably because they confront and disturb conventional responses to disability - particularly the body and sexuality of disability performers.
Set in a white padded cell that tapered sharply towards the rear, evoking the atmosphere of a peep-show, I Am the Walrus explores the story of a matricide, Charlie Markham, who believes he had somehow influenced Mark Chapman to kill John Lennon. Constantly shifting personae and playing out the various parent-child relationships of the figures with Barbie and Action Man dolls, Shaban interleaves biography and his own autobiography, fact and fiction, historic video footage and live relay of his own performance in a piece that is emotionally challenging in its treatment of parental neglect and abuse, of schizophrenia and disability, and is also an example of virtuoso physical performance. Semi-naked in a judo suit - and at one point completely nude - Shaban, who has brittle bone disease, rocks and rolls his body about the cell to create powerfully grotesque images of Markham's mental suffering while also challenging the audience to confront what is conventionally seen as his "deformed" body.
Similar confrontation is found in Fraser's work, as might be expected from the presenter of Channel 4's Freakout series. Fraser alternates between playing an American freakshow performer, Sealboy, and an alter-ego trying to get work in British theatre. He asks if audiences today really look at him in a different way from when people with disabilities were displayed as sideshow freaks. Mixing song and dance with stand-up comedy (his Oscar acceptance speech for a performance in which he plays a character with "normal" arms is hilarious), his reclaiming of his body from those who might be tempted to pity or fear it is worked through in the use of occasional semi-nakedness. Again, the actor's body and the exposure of our socialised responses to bodies that deviate from the norm denies the audience the opportunity to retreat to a comfort zone.
In a festival of a thousand shows, one could choose a very different set to discuss trends in current British theatre. My selection stems from concern about the collusion between marketing officers and reviewers in selling the idea that theatre's future lies in Tarantino mimicry, to the detriment of work that often takes more real risks with form and content and so requires greater - and more satisfying - imaginative and ideological engagement from audiences.
Greg Giesekam is a senior lecturer in theatre studies at the University of Glasgow.