Kieran Hurley tells David Pollock how class consciousness and Glasgow’s Arches theatre helped shape his award-winning writing about human relations, masculinity and rave culture
The common theme to a lot of theatremaker Kieran Hurley’s work, he says, is people searching for a sense of shared purpose or understanding in a world that increasingly tells us we’re supposed to function as atomised individuals.
“If that’s my shtick, it’s my shtick, but there’s been a thing in the past few years where people have referred to me as a political playwright. I’ve been happy to accept that, because it’s not untrue, but I often feel an urge to skewer it, as well,” he continues.
“At the end of the day, anything I write is a story about people and love, in some way. Often these human relationships are a vehicle for a wider conversation, but it’s rarely a political play in any kind of didactic sense. So I’m not sure if I’m a political playwright in the way people describe me. I don’t know, basically. I don’t fucking know.”
Hurley’s conversation is all like this: rapid, seemingly worked through on the spot, but digging into a deep well of thoroughly-ruminated thought and opinion. His plays are the same. They take simple, emotive moments and scenarios to really look at a subject from every angle, while never losing sight of the emotional resonance for his characters.
Since Hitch – his one-man show about a hitch-hiking trip across Europe to participate in anti-capitalist demonstrations at the G8 summit in Italy – made a splash when it was programmed by the Arches in Glasgow a decade ago, Edinburgh-raised, Glasgow-based Hurley has built a powerful reputation in Scotland as one of the country’s leading contemporary playwrights.
And this year he appears to be set for a wider breakthrough moment. The film adaptation of his 2012 Edinburgh Festival hit Beats – co-written by Hurley with director Brian Welsh and executive produced by Steven Soderbergh – was released this year to strong reviews, while both of his acclaimed plays of the past 12 months return to the Edinburgh Festival for laps of honour in August.
These works deal in his common themes and rank among his best plays. Mouthpiece, Orla O’Loughlin’s valedictory piece as artistic director at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre last December, is provocative both in its subject matter and stylistic taboo-busting. It challenges theatre’s treatment of class by establishing a Pygmalion-style relationship between a middle-class Edinburgh writer and a troubled teenage boy of the post-austerity working class.
Mouthpiece was picked up for a five-week run at the Soho Theatre earlier this year, while August’s other Edinburgh revival is Square Go, co-written with Scottish playwright Gary McNair and produced by Fleabag producer Francesca Moody. Written before the concept of ‘toxic masculinity’ had entered public conversation, and batted about for years, Square Go became a crowd-pleasingly energetic comedy about two teenage boys psyching themselves up for the rite of passage that is a fight at the school gates.
Hurley’s other plays include 2012’s Chalk Farm, written with his regular collaborator and now wife Julia ‘AJ’ Taudevin, about a mother and her son attempting to navigate the 2011 London riots; 2014’s Rantin, his ‘ceilidh play’ addressing themes around the Scottish independence referendum, which toured with the National Theatre of Scotland; and Heads Up, another signature one-man work – ‘storytelling’, he calls it, which also drew on performance poetry – about the end of the world.
If I go to the theatre in London I often feel completely alienated by what’s on stage
“I’m definitely middle class,” says Hurley of his upbringing. “My mum is a teacher and my dad worked for an NGO doing statistics work, so those are pretty solidly middle-class jobs, but in Scotland we have really mixed communities in terms of class. I went to school with predominantly working-class kids, and if I go to the theatre in London I often feel completely alienated by what’s on stage – I don’t feel middle class in the way those people are middle class, you know? I didn’t go to private school or anything like that.”
He credits his school’s “strangely dedicated drama department, for a Scottish state school” as instigating his interest in theatre, in particular his old drama teacher Frances Paterson. From there, he studied theatre at the University of Glasgow, where he was particularly inspired by a creative fellow at the time, the late theatremaker Adrian Howells, and by Dee Heddon.
“One class was called autobiography and performance, where everyone created a solo show drawing on their own story,” Hurley says. “That was my first go at a solo show, which became an important building block in the rest of my career. Even more than the exposure to the content of the course, though, was the space to make work with my peers. A theatre studies degree is an academic grounding rather than a vocational discipline, so you’re not coming out of it the way actors come out of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Making sandwiches and coffees in a cafe.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Tearing tickets at the Arches’ box office.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Lean in to those you trust, work hard, look after yourself and others, keep asking why you want to do this and if you still do. And don’t be a dick.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Corny maybe, but the people who have shaped me most are my brothers, my sister, my mum and dad, and my partner.
What’s the best advice you’ve received?
Don’t ever look for your whole sense of self in what you’re doing, in your ‘career’.
If you hadn’t gone into theatre, what would you have been?
I might have gone to art school, I might have been a teacher. I still might…
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I’ll sometimes have a banana and a Lucozade before going on stage, if that counts.
Hurley and his contemporaries formed a student company – “or gave ourselves a name and wrote some verbose press releases” – called For We Are Many. “We aped all the radical, exciting work we were being exposed to, yet convinced ourselves we were the first people to do it,” he says.
“We used anarchist decision-making processes to make theatre against the odds – that maybe wasn’t always going to work, but there was something in the spirit of what we were up to that was pretty cool.”
When the group disbanded upon graduation, Hurley – in a moment of panic at being set adrift from his peers – decided he had to follow many of them in creating his own show. As a part-time box office and cloakroom attendant at the Arches – Glasgow’s influential multi-arts venue and nightclub that closed in 2015 – he went to then artistic director Jackie Wylie and programmer L J Findlay-Walsh, and requested a spot for a solo show at the Arches Live festival of experimental performance in 2009. That show was Hitch, and it was nominated for the Critics’ Award for Theatre in Scotland the same year.
“That was the first time in my life I had been called a playwright,” he says. “I just thought I was telling a story. It was all made possible through the existence of that building: the Arches was so fundamental to my route towards doing this as a job, that I can’t figure out what folk [in Glasgow] who don’t have access to that venue any more are supposed to be doing.”
Beats, a one-man show about the Scottish rave scene of the early 1990s around the advent of the Criminal Justice Bill, sat somewhere between theatrical monologue and club DJ set and was devised onsite at the Arches with resident DJ Johnny Whoop, with equipment available in the building.
Despite the acclaim it received in Edinburgh, a review in club music magazine Mixmag and Hurley’s first CATS win, the wealth of specialist equipment required made Beats an extremely difficult production to tour. After years in development, however, the film has finally taken his story to a wider audience.
“As a theatre writer setting out to write your first screenplay, if you’re sensible about it you tell yourself it’s going to get you some meetings – a foot in the door with Film 4 or something,” he says. “Then if it does get made, you can’t go through that process and enjoy it without thinking, hopefully I get a chance to do that again sometime.” Hurley and Welsh are working on more ideas, but he realises the gestation of film is even longer than that of theatre; his next project for the stage, he hopes, will have a cast of multiple actors.
Hurley now feels comfortable enough to call himself a playwright, saying of his plays that “even if they’re unconventional, they’re still published by Oberon as a thing that says it’s a play on the cover,” but the rest of the CV description floats nebulously around the areas of performer and now screenwriter.
“I don’t really exist in the professional sphere of acting… I spend a lot of time on stage in my shows, but I’m not out with an agent looking for parts. I identify mainly as a writer, but I guess I’m also a theatremaker. Whatever that means.”
Training: University of Glasgow
• Hitch, Arches, Glasgow (2009)
• Beats, Arches, Glasgow (2011)
• Chalk Farm, Underbelly, Edinburgh (2012)
• Rantin, Scottish tour (2014)
• Heads Up, Summerhall, Edinburgh (2016)
• Square Go, Paines Plough Roundabout, Edinburgh (2018)
• Mouthpiece, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (2018)
• Best new play, Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland, for Beats (2012)
• Best new play, Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland, for Heads Up (2017)
• Hector MacMillan Award for Best new Scottish play, for Mouthpiece (2019)
• Fringe First, for Heads Up (2017)
• Fringe First, for Square Go (2018)
Agent: Emily Hickman
Mouthpiece is at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, August 1–25 (not Mondays). Square Go is at Roundabout @ Summerhall in Edinburgh, July 31 to August 25 (not Tuesdays or August 1). Visit traverse.co.uk and edfringe.com for full details