“This show is fun, highly entertaining, and very necessary. It will definitely make you laugh; it will definitely piss some people off – I expect some people to walk out… but it’s saying things politically that need to be said.” This show is David Ireland’s I Promise You Sex And Violence, as described by its director and Northern Stage Artistic Director Lorne Campbell before the play debuts at this years Edinburgh Festival.
“I’d worked with David for quite a long time, first as an actor then as a writer. I helped him with his first play What The Animals Say…” David Ireland’s skill, as Lorne Campbell sees it, is the ability to write characters that are very flawed – deeply flawed – and in some cases even extremely unpleasant in a way that people can still feel things for those characters. A way that’s told “with a real honesty and a real humanity”.
I Promise You Sex And Violence came out of David Ireland’s desire to write a play that wasn’t specifically set in Northern Ireland or about Northern Irish politics, as was his debut. Instead he focused on writing a place relevant to the wider issues permeating twenty-first century life and identity. Therefore, obviously, it’s all about sex. “This play is really about sexual politics…” Sex, violence and the big compelling, ugly problems deep rooted in our society’s psyche: “misogyny, homophobia, racism, all hatreds and violence come from a place of fear and ignorance, and this play features three very flawed, ignorant characters who say terrible things and do terrible things – and are incredibly funny while they do them.”
The figures in the play are three characters in their mid thirties who, like Campbell and DaIrelandvid themselves, have lived through the drastic change in technology, and in what’s accessible and normal online, and are now having to deal with the ramifications as they try and work out who they each are. “I remember when Channel 4 stopped in the afternoon because there were no more programmes” laughs Campbell. “Now we have an array of choice in what we watch or buy or see online….” unlimited across everything you could ever want. Morals drift and sway online, the boundaries that would otherwise be adhered to become ambiguous, and for the generation seeing it happen, finding themselves now in a limitless world of products and saturated in sexual imagery, it becomes hugely confusing for characters such as these: “they’re trying to separate what they think they want from what they actually want and what they should want…”
Each of the three characters – two men and one woman – are struggling with an aspect of their identity, one with their sexuality, one with their gender and one with their race. “The first is utterly confused about his sexuality. He identifies himself to the female character as gay and to his male friend as heterosexual and is actually in love, or lust, with both of them in different ways.” The female character is dealing with the pressure of being a woman in the modern day and age: “she has the dilemma of wanting to be empowered but wanting to be vulnerable, wanting to be sexy but wanting to be modest, wanting to be free but wanting to be part of a relationship… all these irreconcilable tensions.” And the final character, while being mixed-race himself, identifies entirely with his white culture, taking huge issue to anyone who sees him as anything else and being blatantly racist – not to mention misogynistic and homophobic – to those around him. In a storyline that’s essentially a very confused modern love triangle, these three characters will all have to come together somehow before the play end; “I don’t know if it’s a happy ending”, muses Campbell ruefully, “but it is an ending.”
Lorne sees Edinburgh as the best place to launch this play, a place more open to daring work than single theatres may be, and a place to get the best most meaningful reaction to the play from the widest audience possible. “It’s the ideal space for performed work. The diversity of audience, not just in race, class, profession etc, but the different types of people who go to see the theatre at Edinburgh is so varied. It’s the only place where you would watch theatre that way” – watching a lot of shows one after another in one day, or in such a small space of time – “you wouldn’t do that at any other time of year.”
This is the third year Northern Stage is running and curating a venue at Edinburgh, bringing with it 14 companies from across the north of England to its new location in Newington’s Kings Hall. A few years ago Northern Stage asked why there weren’t more playwrights and theatre companies form the north represented at Edinburgh – the answer was mostly down to financial risk. “Younger artists don’t what to risk all that and take a chance in a massive venue…”
So Northern Stage stepped in. “We shoulder most of the financial risk for them, we organise the venue, give tech support, PR, we allow them to take more risk in their creative choices.” It curates it part of the festival to balance experienced artists of profile with very new, very excited companies (Campbell cites Curious Monkey as an example). “Edinburgh allows us to invest in those artists, form relationships with them, support those artists… and take more risks and find new ways of programming them.” A big part of programming is balance – finding the right mix of box office success vs. bigger artistic risks, to make the largest impact in the festival possible. When it comes right down to it “you’ve got to go with your gut… taste is fallable but you have to trust it. You have to like what you programme – everything you programme you should be able to walk out on stage before that show and say to the audience ‘I’m so excited about this’ and be able to explain why.”
If that’s programming, Campbell’s advice for anyone wanting to explore any other branches of theatre-making is to get involved. “Take every opportunity to be as close to the thing when it’s happening. Introduce yourself! Nobody’s going to ask you – you have to make your own momentum… and from that first step you’ll be surprised how short the jump can be to making a paying career out of it… there’s a phrase where I’m from: ‘Shy bairns get nae sweets’, that’s true for this too.”
I Promise You Sex and Violence will be at Northern Stage at the Edinburgh Fringe. For more information and tickets, visit the EdFringe website.