Spoiling, a Fringe First award-winning show is transferring to Theatre Royal Stratford East following a sell-out run at the Edinburgh Fringe. Billy Barrett catches up with its author, John McCann, to find out more…
“It’s about the referendum,” says John McCann on his new play, Spoiling, “but it’s not about the referendum.” We’re downing coffees between festival shows in Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre bar, where the piece has played to sell-out audiences and won a Fringe First award. As the countdown to the Scottish independence referendum dwindles and the debate intensifies between “Aye” and “Nay” camps, McCann’s play transfers to London’s Theatre Royal Stratford East next week.
McCann is eagerly anticipating the play’s imminent London transfer, and the reception it will be given by English audiences – particularly given “the rich history that the Theatre Royal Stratford East has of connecting with plays that deal with the political, with both a big and small ‘P’. I know that the cast are really excited about getting their feet on that stage.”
But, the playwright insists, the reach of his devolutionary drama extends beyond the current hot topic of the Scottish referedum. “Its real tussle is between wanting to do what’s right and the things that provide an obstacle to that,” he says. “What inspired me is the difference between political aspiration and political reality.” Spoiling, he suggests, complicates the ways in which we hold our politicians and governmental systems to account. “When Obama was first elected, what kind of country did people think they were walking up to the day after he was inaugurated? Did they think things were going change at the swoosh of a pen? People attack him for not living up to his promises, but you have to look carefully at what’s blocking his attempts at progress.”
The play, whose satirical skewering of diplomacy and political machinations has been compared with The Thick of It, sees designate Scottish Foreign Minister Fiona prepare for her maiden speech in a post-referendum, pre-handover Scotland. Fiercely principled and heavily pregnant, she battles with newly appointed Northern Irish aide Mark over whether to stick to the script that’s been composed for her, or to rewrite history herself. Revelations about the pair’s private lives and political affiliations feed into their decision-making, and the meeting becomes increasingly tense.
With quicky comic dialogue that dives headfirst into questions of nationhood and autonomy, as well as a riveting central performance by Gabriel Quigley, the drama explores to what extent the personal can impact the political. “Audiences have been saying it absolutely doesn’t come down on either side,” says McCann, an outspoken advocate for independence himself. “It certainly isn’t a piece of agit-prop theatre.” Were he to write a piece of pure propaganda, he points out, it would be rather more utopian and probably set pre-referendum, rather than the indecisive omnishambles we’re given six months down the line.
Another playwright at the Fringe, Van Badham, observed recently in a column for the Guardian how “excitingly enfranchising” the opposing campaigns in Scotland have been, engaging previously apathetic or insular people. McCann agrees; “everybody here has an opinion,” he says, “it has been really galvanising. But what’s interesting to me is that the people describing their journey from one side to the other are largely talking about the same kind of thing: aspirations for a positive vision for their country. Nobody’s talking about smashing this or that or whatever; people just have a fundamentally different vision of the vehicle for making their vision a reality.”
This brazen optimism comes though in the text, from the fact that Fiona is both a credible, honest politician – a rarity, surely – and pregnant with a child who will be born into an unimaginably different future. It’s hard not to think of Northern Stage’s Bloody Great Border Ballad Project, an Edinburgh show last year last year that commissioned artists to create a border ballad around the theme of the referendum. In it, a child born on the day of a newly independent Scotland drifts down the dividing waterway of the River Tweed, an emblem of both hope and uncertainty. Whilst he missed the production, McCann acknowledges the shared symbolism: “at one point I thought it was a bit of a cheesy thing to do. But I also think it’s an interesting thing to watch a character onstage who is heavily pregnant doing what that character does. Is she going to do something that’ll put her child at risk? It adds an extra layer of tension.”
Following its much-anticipated London transfer, Spoiling will return to the Traverse for a performance on the eve of the referendum. McCann confesses to being “suddenly very anxious” when he heard that the Traverse was planning to coincide it with the main event. “To return to how we started this conversation,” he reflects, “I think that political aspiration will be present in that evening, and then the reality will sink in when we begin to get the results – the complicated nature of what it may mean for all of us.”