Re­turn of Lo­cal Hero

PLAY­WRIGHT DAVID GREIG ON LO­CAL HERO THE MU­SI­CAL

The Herald Magazine - - CONTENTS - WORDS MAR­I­ANNE TAY­LOR PHO­TO­GRAPH GOR­DON TER­RIS

THE spring sun is try­ing its best to shine upon Por­to­bello beach and it’s al­most warm enough to take off your coat. The prom­ise of late af­ter­noon warmth has brought out the lo­cals and ice cream shops along the prom­e­nade are do­ing a roaring trade while hardy kids, still in school uni­form, chase each other in and out of the surf, un­per­turbed by the freez­ing wa­ters of the Firth of Forth.

As the buzz of walk­ers, fam­i­lies, jog­gers and cy­clists grows, you get a feel for how im­por­tant this stretch of caramel sand just out­side Ed­in­burgh is to the peo­ple who live here, the part it plays in the story of Por­to­bello.

Play­wright David Greig says he cur­rently spends an in­or­di­nate amount of time think­ing about the sig­nif­i­cance of beaches as he works on one of the most keenly an­tic­i­pated pieces of home­grown the­atre in years. Greig and film­maker Bill Forsyth are adapt­ing the lat­ter’s renowned 1983 film Lo­cal Hero for the stage as a mu­si­cal and a beach had the star­ring role in the orig­i­nal along­side Burt Lan­caster, Ful­ton Mackay, Peter Riegert and De­nis Law­son, bring­ing a sense of magic and even mys­ti­cism to this strange and beau­ti­ful tale of a Texan oil­man’s jour­ney of dis­cov­ery af­ter he is sent to buy a Scot­tish vil­lage ear­marked for de­vel­op­ment as an oil re­fin­ery.

In the movie, Pen­nan in Aberdeen­shire stands in for the fic­tional vil­lage of Fer­ness, its red tele­phone box be­com­ing a tourist at­trac­tion in its own right, while the beach was the glo­ri­ous white sands of Ca­mus­darach, near Mo­rar, some 180 miles west. One mem­o­rable scene near the end of the film fea­tures Lan­caster and Mackay dis­cussing the mean­ing of life on the sand, as the clear blue west coast wa­ters lap in the back­ground.

Re-imag­in­ing a beach for the the­atre was al­ways go­ing to be chal­leng­ing, never more so than when it’s a vi­tal and enig­matic el­e­ment in an adap­ta­tion of ar­guably the best-loved Scot­tish film of all time. No pres­sure, then. But Greig, writer, di­rec­tor and now artis­tic di­rec­tor of the Royal Lyceum the­atre in Ed­in­burgh, has ex­pe­ri­ence of adapt­ing the “im­pos­si­ble” – his 2015 ver­sion of Alasdair Gray’s novel La­nark was a rev­e­la­tion – and he is qui­etly con­fi­dent that he and Glas­gow-born Forsyth will find a way to pull it off.

“One of the things that is so elu­sively bril­liant about Lo­cal Hero is that it’s got a spir­i­tual side to it, a slightly tran­scen­den­tal sense,” he ex­plains. “The char­ac­ter of Ben the beach­comber [played in the film by Mackay] raises so many ques­tions. Who is he? Has he been on that beach for­ever?

“Bill’s writ­ing al­ways hov­ers on this very fine line be­tween nat­u­ral­is­tic ob­ser­va­tions of Scot­tish life and the mag­i­cal and tran­scen­den­tal.

“The chal­lenge for us at the heart of Lo­cal Hero, the thing that is go­ing to make or break it and ap­peals to me as a the­atre maker, is this idea of the beach. Lo­cal Hero is about the power of land­scape over our soul, but the one thing you can’t do in the the­atre is land­scape. That’s im­me­di­ately in­ter­est­ing to me. And that’s where mu­sic comes in be­cause it has to stand in for

land­scape; sud­denly you’re fly­ing.” Cru­cially, won­der­fully, the mu­sic Greig refers to is be­ing pro­vided by Mark Knopfler, the for­mer Dire Straits front­man who com­posed the evoca­tive folk-tinged sound­track that helped make the film be­come such an in­ter­na­tional hit, es­pe­cially in the US. Knopfler is writ­ing new songs to ac­com­pany and en­hance his orig­i­nal score, with the show re­ceiv­ing its world pre­miere at the Lyceum next spring, be­fore trans­fer­ring to Lon­don’s Old Vic.

And it was an­nounced this week that the pro­duc­tion will be di­rected by Ir­ish­man John Crow­ley, the Os­car-nom­i­nated di­rec­tor of the films Brook­lyn and Boy A, whose the­atre work – which in­cludes The Present, star­ring Cate Blanchett, and Martin McDon­agh’s The Pil­low­man – has taken the West End and Broad­way by storm. There’s no word on cast­ing yet, but the pro­duc­tion is aim­ing for big names.

You get the feel­ing Greig, 50, a Scot who grew up watch­ing Lo­cal Hero and Gregory’s Girl, Forsyth’s charm­ing 1981 clas­sic about teenage love in Cum­ber­nauld, still can’t be­lieve he’s as­sem­bled such a dream team.

“Mark has con­quered ev­ery mu­si­cal field but he’s par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in folk mu­sic, Amer­i­cana and coun­try, and pro­duc­ing a suite of songs for these char­ac­ters piqued his in­ter­est,” says the play­wright, whose pre­vi­ous work in­cludes Dun­si­nane, The Events, Mid­sum­mer and the script for the West End and Broad­way ver­sions of Char­lie and the Choco­late Fac­tory. “He’s not a com­poser in a Broad­way style. But pro­duc­tions like the Bob Dy­lan mu­si­cal Girl from the North Coun­try and Hamil­ton have re­ally opened up the mu­si­cal the­atre pal­ette to other tones and tex­tures.

“That was ex­cit­ing for all of us and it re­ally took off when John came on board. He’s an amaz­ing di­rec­tor who has a deep con­nec­tion to the use of mu­sic. John brings a vi­sion­ary sense of what the tone and the feel of this piece could be and he’s in­ter­ested in telling the story in a way that is the­atri­cally mag­i­cal.”

As for work­ing with Forsyth, Greig says the col­lab­o­ra­tion has of­fered new cre­ative ex­pe­ri­ences for both of them.

“Bill is a film­maker, di­rec­tor and writer so there’s a bit of a lan­guage bar­rier that we had to over­come,” he ex­plains. “He had to get his head round the­atre and I had to get my head round how you talk to some­one whose sto­ry­telling medium is cinema. That took a bit of time.

“It made me think about what’s im­por­tant. What does some­one who has bought a ticket for Lo­cal Hero re­ally want to see? I think it’s Bill Forsyth-ness. That’s the thing I grew up with. Some­times the lines he writes are quite odd but they have that cer­tain ‘thing’. It’s like hear­ing a singer you like – you can in­stantly recog­nise it.

“It’s been so en­joy­able now we’ve found that lan­guage and I see my role as try­ing to help shape the story so it will work in the­atre terms without los­ing that pe­cu­liar

tone of voice. Hope­fully that’s what will make the show feel orig­i­nal.”

Greig also be­lieves con­tem­po­rary au­di­ences will find new and var­ied res­o­nances in the story, 35 years af­ter the film was re­leased to crit­i­cal ac­claim.

“You can see Lo­cal Hero as be­ing about Me­nie beach and Don­ald Trump – a bil­lion­aire buying up a chunk of Scot­land – en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism and oil, com­mu­nity and cap­i­tal­ism,” says the Fife-based writer. “But it’s also a love story about a man who falls in love with a cou­ple, which is very un­usual. He to­tally falls for their life.

“For me, though, Lo­cal Hero is a story about value. How do you know what some­thing is worth? The bril­liant twist of Lo­cal Hero is that the com­mu­nity is very keen to sell out – their ship has come in. I’m keen that we pre­serve the sense that it is up to you to find your way through all this. I don’t want us to turn it into just one thing.”

THERE’S a cer­tain pres­sure on the pro­duc­tion to de­liver, he says, but he and the team are em­brac­ing the chance to cre­ate some­thing new rather than just repack­ag­ing an old favourite. “The no­tion of birthing Lo­cal Hero at the Lyceum felt very for­tu­itous be­cause it gave us the chance to make some­thing on an in­ti­mate scale for a home au­di­ence,” he says. “If we can make it so that the au­di­ence in Scot­land likes it, then it will have in­tegrity.

“If we make some­thing that is truly beau­ti­ful, mov­ing, del­i­cate and joy­ful on its own terms, a sis­ter to the film rather than rid­ing on the coat tails, it will be re­ally worth­while. But the film will al­ways be the film. Noth­ing we do is go­ing to spoil that. If we screw up, it’ll be em­bar­rass­ing for ev­ery­body in­volved but it will dis­ap­pear. The film will live on re­gard­less. If we do well, it’ll bring a whole new au­di­ence to the film.”

Lo­cal Hero is the cen­tre­piece of an ex­cit­ing and in­trigu­ing new sea­son at the Lyceum, Greig’s third as cre­ative di­rec­tor. Other high­lights in­clude the late Glas­gow-born poet Edwin Mor­gan’s Scots ver­sion of clas­sic love story Cyrano de Berg­erac, a pro­duc­tion of Shake­speare’s Twelfth Night set amid the psychedelia of the 1960s and, for Christ­mas 2018, a new retelling of Peter Pan.

Else­where, an­other film adap­ta­tion, this time a the­atri­cal re-imag­in­ing of Touch­ing the Void, writ­ten by Greig, will ex­plore Joe Simpson’s ex­tra­or­di­nary tale of hu­man sur­vival in the An­des, and award-win­ning Ed­in­burgh-based play­wright Zin­nie Har­ris will con­tinue her fe­male-fo­cused ex­am­i­na­tion of the canon with a new ver­sion of Ja­cobean re­venge tragedy The Duchess of Malfi.

Greig has never been one to shy away from con­fronting the po­lit­i­cal, ei­ther with a big or small “p” (he was a vo­cal sup­porter of in­de­pen­dence dur­ing the 2014 ref­er­en­dum) but he says the cur­rent cli­mate of divi­sion and un­cer­tainty made him keen to fo­cus on uni­ver­sal sto­ries. “The sea­son we’re com­ing to an end of now was quite po­lit­i­cal and had an edge of ques­tion­ing. This year I felt we needed a com­ing to­gether with what I’d call ‘camp­fire’ tales – sto­ries that bring ev­ery­body to the the­atre, like Lo­cal Hero, Cyrano de Berg­erac and Touch­ing the

If we make some­thing that is truly beau­ti­ful, mov­ing, del­i­cate and joy­ful on its own terms, it will be re­ally worth­while

Void. All of these are sto­ries you could tell round a camp­fire, that every­one from the teenager to gran­dad would en­joy.

“A lot of these shows will, I hope, at­tract peo­ple who aren’t reg­u­lar the­atre­go­ers. This sea­son is about big, poetic, myth­i­cal sto­ries but also that feel­ing of wel­come. Let’s ex­pe­ri­ence these sto­ries to­gether and we might find they res­onate with our lives right now, but I’m not go­ing to tell you how or why – that bit is up to you.”

Like much of the cre­ative com­mu­nity in Scot­land and else­where in the UK, Greig has spo­ken out against Brexit and the neg­a­tive im­pact he be­lieves it is hav­ing in many sec­tors of so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing the arts.

“Over the last 30 to 40 years, Scot­land has ben­e­fited from its sense of Eu­ro­pean-ness,” he says. “I’ve made work in Spain, Greece, the Czech Repub­lic and my work has been put on in many Eu­ro­pean coun­tries. When I took over the Lyceum I wanted our the­atre to be on the Eu­ro­pean map, to make work with Eu­ro­pean di­rec­tors and have it travel. There’s no ques­tion that it’s more dif­fi­cult now. We’re go­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion.

“You can­not un­der­es­ti­mate how pre­car­i­ous it is be­ing a young artist or the­atre maker in Scot­land right now. It’s a bor­der­line ter­ri­ble place to be – aus­ter­ity and lo­cal au­thor­ity cuts have re­ally bit­ten.

“The act of re­main­ing in Scot­land to make your work has al­ways been a bit of a state­ment of faith in your coun­try. If you’re about prac­ti­cal suc­cess, you’ll go to Lon­don, New York or Paris as so many Scots have done in past. That’s a great thing, of course. But hav­ing an in­dige­nous com­mu­nity of mak­ers who live in Scot­land is also a bril­liant thing. We’ve man­aged to have that in the last 30 years, partly be­cause of that sense of con­nec­tion, that feel­ing of be­ing just as plugged in as we would be if we lived in Copen­hagen or Ber­lin.

“Trav­el­ling in the other di­rec­tion means it’s go­ing to be a chal­lenge to keep our best artists here or at­tract them back once they’ve gone. You want there to be a sense that there is some­thing for them to come back to, that there’s a car­ry­ing stream of cul­ture tak­ing place mu­si­cally, the­atri­cally, vis­ually, cin­e­mat­i­cally. And this is big­ger than any gov­ern­ment or fund­ing body. It’s about the global econ­omy and us trav­el­ling in a neo-lib­eral aus­ter­ity di­rec­tion away from Europe. That’s a real chal­lenge.”

Back at Por­to­bello beach, all this talk of cul­ture, divi­sion, mean­ing and value has got me think­ing of Lo­cal Hero again. I wish we could bump into a Ben the beach­comber type char­ac­ter, some­one enig­matic and wise who could help us put cur­rent events into per­spec­tive round the camp­fire. By 7pm the evening sun has fi­nally bro­ken through and the scene is bathed in shim­mer­ing light. Sadly, we haven’t found our Ben, but there is a cer­tain Forsyth-ness in the air all the same.

Lo­cal Hero runs at the Royal Lyceum from 23 March-20 April 2019. The first tick­ets go on sale at 10am on Tues­day. See www.lyceum.org.uk

Top: Peter Riegert and Christo­pher Rozy­cki – and the fa­mous tele­phone box – in Lo­cal Hero. Above: The film’s cast

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