Testicular tomfoolery

Mark Fisher dogs Bill Paterson and director Mark Wing-Davey as they prepare to bring Mikhail Bulgakov’s A Mongrel ’3 Heart to the stage.

Bill Paterson is in jovial form. Despite The Sun photographers lurking outside, tipped off that the actor had injured himself the day before (not seriously and not worthy of a Sun exclusive, but try telling them that), he’s busy wisecracking his way through the lunchtime rehearsal break at the Royal Lyceum. ‘So that’s you.’ i suggest, pointing to the photograph of a bull terrier on the poster for A Mongrel's Heart, the Bulgakov novella in which Paterson is about to star. ‘Yes, that picture was taken a few years ago on holiday,‘ he chirps, ‘l don’t think it’s my best photograph, but it was the one they wanted to use!’

Actually, by rights the photo should not be of a pure breed but a scruffy, indeterminate cross if it were properly to represent the theme of the book. Bulgakov’s story, translated here by Glasgow‘s Stephen Mulrine who last worked with Paterson on A Man with Connections at The Traverse, is about a Russian professor who steals a dog which will be the recipient of the testicles of a recently deceased man. Unexpectedly, the poor mutt takes on alarmingly human characteristics with nightmarish consequences for the scientist who has clearly bitten off more than he can chew, so to speak. ‘lt‘s really important that the dog is a mongrel,‘ explains Paterson, ‘because he‘s got nothing to fall back on, no pedigree.’

‘It’s so terribly modern In its writing and Its wit, it’s much earthier than many English writers would have written in the 1920s - there’s much less squeamishness.’

Much the same, in fact as the original owner of said set of testicles, a dissolute drunk and petty thief who is stabbed to death in a bar-room brawl. After the operation, the forlorn but essentially innocent mongrel aquires the ugly human qualities of corruption and greed, thus Bulgakov‘s satire begins. Paterson, the downbeat star of Comfort and Joy, Truly Madly Deeply and the recent TV series Tell Tale Hearts, is going for a subtle interpretation of the hound rather than the full anthropomorphic pantomime bit. ‘My face will be slightly comic,‘ he says, ‘you know the way that dogs have a lot of hair hanging over their mouth, it looks human l have side bits and eye-brows as well and it‘s works so well that it's all you need for the dog. Once you start adding bits of fur on, you have to go the whole way.’


Bill Paterson as the small- screen psychopatir in Iell Tale Hearts

MacDonald to co-star; a degree of control the actor says he has never enjoyed since the time he performed in John Byrne’s Writer's Cramp back in [977. ‘I came across the play prior to Gorbachev, Glasnost, Perestroika, the break-up of the Soviet Union and the return of Russia as a country balancing on a knife-edge of anarchy,‘ he says. ‘This book is written at an equivalent time when the Bolshevic Revolution was establishing itselfprior to Stalin; anything could have happened with the turmoil in society. It reflects a time that we’re more aware of now than perhaps we would have been ten years ago.’

What is more important, he reckons, is the dog‘s perspective rather than his appearance, and he hasn’t felt the need to engage in a major study ofcanine behavior. ‘lt‘s what the dog thinks about, it’s what the dog talks about, intellectually,’ he says. ‘That’s what’s interesting, because you get a chance in this play, just for the first twenty minutes, to go into the mind ofa dog as it talks to you. After twenty minutes, he is turned by the professor into a human being.’

Director Mark Wing-Davey, who Douglas Adams fans will remember as Zaphod Beeblebrox in The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, admits to casting the play in such a way that Paterson‘s medium stature will be doggedly dwarfed by the tall frames of the actors around him. Also, the set will feature ten-foot high radiators just to emphasise the canine perspective. This sense of disorientation is also appropriate for Wing-Davey’s displaced vision of the play. ‘In the novella,‘ says the director who is a hot property in the States after winning an Obie Award for his production of Caryl Churchill’s Mad Forrest, ‘Bulgakov uses any tools that he wants to in terms of changing the narrator or what someone knows. So what I’ve tried to do is maintain that sense of change and surprise within the style so that it shifts from, say, a Chekovian manner into much more extreme dialogue. It’s constantly ringing the changes. It’s full of blood, full of music that’s a phrase of Stalin’s so that it‘s highly theatrical, but it shifts. It doesn’t go in a linear fashion, it goes where something seems to be demanded.’

For Paterson, A Mongrel ’3 Heart has been a personal passion for some time. He was introduced to it by fellow Royal Lyceum Associate Brian Cox and it seemed a natural choice when the two of them were invited on board by Artistic Director Kenny lreland. it was Paterson who invited Mulrine to translate, Wing-Davey to direct and Stephen

‘it’s really important that the dog is a mongrel because he’s got nothing to fall back on, no pedigree.’

The theme of genetic manipulation is also suddenly of contemporary interest, he points out, where once it was pure science-fiction, and the book’s language and sexual frankness are surprsingly up-front. ‘lt’s so terribly modem in its writing and its wit,‘ he says, ‘it’s much earthier than many English writers would have written in the 1920s there‘s much less squeamishness. The professor is actually dealing with rejuvenation as he calls it and it’s as much to do with sexual rejuvenation, replacing testicles and ovaries on men and women to make them still active very powerful stuff for 1925.’

So are we to expect walk-outs in the stalls? ‘There certainly might be,‘ he ponders, ‘or people wanting the address of the professor‘s practice!’

A Mongrel is Heart, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. 8—30 April.

The List 8—21 April 1994 43 I