Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting was first published in 1993 and was immediately the subject of a tug-of-war between two very different sides of public opinion. Many called it the most interesting book to come out of Britain for decades, though just as many were offended by its stark, frank depiction of heroin addiction and squalor in the eighties, masked by the cultural richness of Edinburgh. It has since achieved cult status, aided by the global success of Danny Boyle’s film adaptation. This production, by In Your Face Theatre, was originally performed at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It was just as shocking as one might expect, and all the more powerful for it.
Trainspotting was written as a series of short stories or snapshots and does not provide a linear narrative, making a plot outline virtually pointless. It begins already in chaos – by the end of the play, this chaos is not resolved. Mark Renton is the protagonist of the play, describing his daily movements and those of his friends. For Renton, much of his confused “routine” revolves around heroin: taking heroin, cooking heroin, thinking about heroin, finding the money to get heroin. He and his group occupy a distorted twilight world, in which the real concerns of most people appear unimportant. “Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family,” he begins. Mark Renton has none of these things. “Choose your future. Choose life.”
The King’s Head Theatre is well known for its eclectic programme, but Trainspotting is by far the most experimental I have seen. As the audience squeezed through the tiny, red, set of doors into the main theatre, we were greeted by flashing lights and thumping music, the screeching actors wailing and calling to one another onstage. Theatregoers watched standing on the edge of the stage, sitting on steps, or crowded into tiny benches (I was one of this lucky few). This proximity to the action was electric, the actors drawing us still further in by grabbing people, sitting down to read their lines amongst the audience and, at one point, kissing a female audience member. The immersive nature of the production was appropriate, drawing us in in the same way that the drug enveloped the characters on stage. Looking at the walls covered in graffiti, sheets stained with sick and floor smeared with what looked like faeces, it was hard not to become apart of the dark, claustrophobic world that the characters inhabited. This technique was unsettlingly brilliant, especially in the close, tight setting of the Kings Head itself: the setting was both seductive and repellant.
The acting is also first class. Gavin Ross is truly brilliant as Renton, the 1984-esque anti-hero. Ross’s darkly comic tone provides the perfect counter-balance to the mayhem on stage, and perfectly captures a character ashamed of his own life, yet also accepting of it: “Smack is an honest drug,” he explains. Greg Esplin is another one to watch, his portrayal of Tommy, the innocent finally tripped up by heroin. His vulnerability was oddly magnetic, and more overt than that of the other actors on stage. Chris Dennis on the other hand, is superbly terrifying as Franco Begbie, the psychotic maniac who is almost a personification of the drug at its worst. Attacking those around him with apparently no remorse, Dennis was genuinely unnerving, the audience left reeling as much as the actors. Truly powerful, important theatre often shocks or disturbs: the cast did just that.
As the actors lined up on stage and bowed, Esplin (also the creative director of In Your Face Theatre) came forward and asked the audience to spread the word. I am doing just that – this production of Trainspotting was as theatrically violent as it gets, bravely confronting the middle class, sensible audience head on with the realities of destructive drug use, hedonism and poverty. Do not miss this hidden gem, which closes on April 11th.