Return of Local Hero
PLAYWRIGHT DAVID GREIG ON LOCAL HERO THE MUSICAL
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