The film version of Trainspotting, based on the book by Irvine Welch, is not easy to watch. The first time I was shown the toilet scene in a film-making class I had to close my eyes, so nauseated was I by the events on-screen. This scene might be one of the most viscerally disgusting but thematically, while still horrifying, it is arguably less pessimistic than much of the other content – which is to be expected, perhaps, in a story that revolves around a group of heroin addicts in Edinburgh in the late 1980s.
To see the material on stage, unmediated by a screen, is therefore quite an intense experience. Trainspotting Live, produced in the UK and brought to Australia by King’s Head Theatre and In Your Face Theatre, heightens the already shocking and difficult story by creating an immersive experience. This begins as the audience members are given glow sticks and brought into the performance space, transformed by pulsing EDM and strobe lights into a rave. This was a fairly light start to the performance – while I’m sure most of the audience members who were dragged up to join the dancing weren’t impressed, the actors at least looked like they might be having fun, though how they managed to keep raving for so long, given that they were presumably not actually high, remains a mystery to me. However, as the production progressed, some audience members found actors’ naked genitalia in their faces, were cursed at by Chris Dennis in a disturbing turn as Begbie, or were splattered with “faeces” from a filthy toilet situated in amongst our seats.
As an adaptation, the play is wonderfully done. Writer Harry Gibson eschewed an overarching storyline in favour of mimicking the short story structure of Welch’s book, and some of the dialogue seems to be lifted straight from the pages, with the characters narrating their own lives and the lives of those around them. The staging is perfect, too, with the whole space evoking the sparse, grungy nature of the character’s lives, and other elements used to intensely emotional effect – in particular, there is a sequence towards the end which utilises strobe lights to build to an extremely tense and confronting emotional climax, which is as stunning as it is disturbing.
The cast, imported from the UK production and therefore, thankfully, genuinely accented, were generally excellent. At times, Gavin Ross, in the role of Mark Renton, was perhaps a little over the top with his frustrated screams – “oh, fuck!” was a regular refrain – but on the other hand, the character had plenty of reason to be screaming, so perhaps he can be forgiven for that.
At times, the play relies maybe a little too much on assumed knowledge of the text – for example, the infamous scene with Allison’s baby occurs with very little introduction to the fact that the baby existed at all, and Tommy’s descent into addiction isn’t really prefaced with any hint of his sobriety. This could have been exacerbated by the difficulty we sometimes had understanding the dialogue, given the thick Scottish accents, but one certainly gets the impression that they are expected to have at least some knowledge of what goes on before they step into the performance space.
Whatever problems Trainspotting Live may have had, though, they were far outweighed by its merits – it may not always have been fun to watch, but it was definitely worthwhile.