Soiled sheets are not flung about the stage. There are no aquatic excursions through the depths of a scummy toilet bowl. And the reanimated husk of a dead infant does not crawl to the front of house. But Trainspotting, the play -- which opens off-Broadway at The Players Theatre on November 15 -- mines ample horror and hilarity all its own from Irvine Welsh's touchstone book, creating theatre that makes the acclaimed Miramax film version of 1996 look, well, like a Disney picture.
"People of a nervous disposition should probably not attend," says Harry Gibson, the writer-director of the theatrical adaptation. A gregarious Scotsman given to dry understatements like the one above, Gibson spoke of transforming "bleeding lumps" of Welsh's original book from the stage of The Players Theatre, seated on a ratty old sofa that turns into a carnival ride at the end of Act One.
In Trainspotting, nothing, and no one, ever stays the same for long. Its four performers (three men and a woman) slip in and out of 10 different characterizations, and sometimes play two roles simultaneously. Clever set, lighting, and sound design instantly change the barebones black box stage into a number of down-at-heel locations in contemporary Edinburgh, where the smack-soaked story is set. Scenes are cunningly played off the theatre's "Exit" sign, as if there could be any real escape for the poverty-stricken, drug-addled young Scots given profane and powerful voice in the course of the production's harrowing two hours.
Gibson, an actor member of The Citizens' Theatre Company in Glasgow, came across the novel in mid-1993, not long after it had been published. Plumbing the burr in his voice, he says, "I'm just an ordinary theatre hack, who was asked by the company to find something that wasn't crap to turn into a production. So I walked into a bookshop and said, 'Lassie, do you have anything I might turn into a wee play here,' and the book seller said, "Harry, I've got just the thing here. It's great. Everyone is buying it -- and everyone is stealing it as well.' " Gibson snapped up the rights to the "this dirty book by a genius -- the most shoplifted novel in British history - just before a queue of people who couldn't quite figure out how to do it for the stage."
Gibson says inspiration struck quickly, "by about page 24, as I was reading it commuting between Glasgow and Oxford, where I live. I could hear the voices of the characters so clearly. I could smell the breweries; with most Scottish writers, all you can smell is the word processor." The play, which Gibson adapted on a series of index cards drawn from scenes in the novel, is in part a series of excessively scabrous monologues hurled at the audience. Amid the wall of words, the characters confront and coddle each other in ways that are often rawly humorous and sometimes heart-breaking, what Gibson calls "sheer human emotion, designed to leave them, and the audience, reeling at the end." Unlike the movie, the play drops the redemptive coda of the book, banging shut the door to the asylum onstage.
"Irvine's original view of theatre was that it was bourgeois shite, which is, of course, true as we all know," Gibson deadpans. "And, of course, because it is so bourgeois, you can get away with more than you can in a movie, or on TV." Besides the "harsh beauty" of the language (helpful translations of urban Scottishisms are provided on the back of the program), audiences are pulled into erotically stylized depictions of substance abuse ("simulated as convincingly as American law will allow"), including one shockingly desperate act that rivals Amanda Plummer's intimate relationship with a Kentucky Fried Chicken leg in Killer Joe as the most outre sequence in the off-Broadway season to date. Trainspotting is far from the conventional "problem play" in its treatment of what its characters revere: "life-giving, life-taking" heroin.
"Theatre shouldn't be a safe world where people have a retro time without being confronted," Gibson asserts. "What we're showing is true to the experience of junkies I've talked to. There are no cheap tricks. It's the story of people who have nothing, for whom the term 'recreational drug use' is meaningless. This is a problem that can't be solved just by legalizing the substances. If you have a life, no drug can destroy you; if you don't have one, it's easy for something to get inside and suck you dry. This show is not like 'come be entertained by junkies stripping down and shooting up.' It's a ----ed -up scenario, and we ---- up the audiences' heads with it, so they feel like they know what it's like to be on something."
Trainspotting has proven addictive with ticket buyers. The Citizens' production, in 1994, was a sellout ("the boxoffice ladies were fairly weeping with joy") followed by runs in London, Belfast, Dublin, Sydney, and Toronto. The New York staging is its U.S. debut. "What the movie did for the play was publicize the meaning of the word 'trainspotting,' " says Gibson, who won the 1995 Sunday Times' Best New Play Award for his direction of the piece. "Now people know it's not just bored, retired schoolmasters on wet, windy afternoons in Britain engaged in cataloguing the passage of trains. It's also the pattern of the trackmarks as you go along your veins, looking for a different place to shoot up each time. And you do reach the point where you run out of veins."
The play is not one that allows actors to tap out their creative vein. In New York, the roles of Sick Boy, Alison, Tommy, Franco, and all the rest are inhabited by Tessa Auberjonois, Dara Coleman, Sebastian Roche, and Seth Ullian. Ullian, fresh from "four years of banging things in rhythm with Stomp," has the key part of Mark Renton, who acts somewhat as a tour guide to the lower depths of the largely plotless play. All quickly latched onto the required accent, almost too well; Gibson laughs that a vocal coach had to be brought in when the performers, steeped in the culture of the piece, became "incomprehensible" in rehearsals. He adds that the material is "filthy, joyous, and liberating" for the quartet, but physically and psychically wearing as well. If the actors look a bit robust to be playing addicts early in the run, count on them to be on the down side of "heroin chic" if Trainspotting settles in for an extended stay.
"They'll be thin, and strained, and grouchy," after performance upon performance of the exhausting piece, set to the music of Portishead and The Verve, among other bands. "They'll seethe as they walk down the street, and will find that they'll have to do the production every night like a drug. They'll only be off if they're dead, and if they're dead they'll come back to haunt the rest of us," says Gibson, with a slight grin. "For me, the play is less about drugs than it is about relations between men and women in this poor, violent society. All the suffering in the play ends up draining to the actress, and that her characters still have faith in life is remarkable. So it's very tough for Tessa [the daughter of actor Rene Auberjonois] and anyone in her roles. One actress who played the parts gave up acting temporarily and decided to go into paramedic training, which she said was easier."
Gibson will not be disappointed if New York proves to be his last stop as director for Trainspotting. "This may be the play in its final form, and if it is, this is the production that's done it for me," he says, gesturing to the low-slung lighting grid and scarecrow-like scaffolding that make up most of the set. But the play, which has been translated into nine languages, has left trackmarks all over the world, with a new production slated for Osaka, Japan. "I've seen so many directed by others. Iceland, where the play was staged as a classic myth, was a great thrill. Dresden was a giggle; that production ran three long hours, with a cast full of blond-haired, blue-eyed boys and a musical buggery scene. It got 17 curtain calls, though, so I can't complain."
Gibson's next show as adapter is a musical based on "When We Were Very Young," A.E. Milne's first book of poems. Despite that change of pace, he hasn't quite finished with the down-and-out world of Irvine Welsh. Gibson, last seen as an actor on the New York stage in a one-man show called Unspeakable Acts, has additional acts to share with Manhattan theatregoers, courtesy of his 1996 adaptation of Welsh's "Marabou Stork Nightmares." "I'd like to bring it here" he says. "It's about soccer violence, group rape, and child abuse, on an operatic scale, and it's more disturbing than Trainspotting. " Pause. "It's a comedy."
--By Robert Cashill