If you like your theatre big, you should head down to Govan where BILL BRYDEN is re—creating the stench of the trenches in his World War I epic, The Big Picnic. Mark Fisher meets the ambitious director as he sets about creating a successor to The Ship.

nyone remember 1990'? lt seems a long time ago now. but that was the year when the possibilities of what you could see on stage in Glasgow

were just about as big as your imagination. Think about it. In the span of twelve months you could catch

Communicado trying to sum up the Scottish psyche in .lock 'Iainson 's Bairns. Test Department lamenting the decline of industry in a warehouse so big it seemed to stretch beyond the horizon in The Second Coming . and John {\I’chrath turning the Tramway into a funfair as an elaborate allegory of class structure in John Brown '3‘ Body.

And then. of course. there was The Ship. No big deal to see a play about working-class life in the boat-building industry. everyone from Joe Corrie down has had a stab at faithful portrayals ofthe ordinary man’s lot. No. what made The Ship stand out was the ludicrous ambition of its staging. This wasn‘t just a play about a ship. hell. this was a ship! Forty feet high. a third the size of a football pitch. £‘)()().()()() in cost and built by a team of working welders. burners and platers. Bill Dudley’s set was as near to the real thing as you can get without a Plimsoll line and flag of convenience. At the end of the show the 900- strong audience even had to disembark to watch the hulk be ‘launched‘ down a ramp.

So that was 1990 and that was the kind of idea that a director/playwright like Bill Brydcn was allowed to indulge in. Since then. things have become rather more tame in Glasgow. The impetus of the Year of (‘ulture upped the stakes fora while. but four years on. life is pretty much back to normal. lixcept that Bill Brydcn is back. He's had his fill of being behind a desk as BBC Scotland‘s Head of Drama. he‘s popped back to the West End to stage a well-received production of A Month in the ('ountry with John Hurt and Helen Mirren to prove he can still cut it as a director. and now the 52-year-old Greenock man is camping out at the Harland and Wolff engine shed with a show that promises to make The Ship look like studio theatre.

The Big Picnic. a tribute to the Govan soldiers who fought in World War l. takes up three times as much space as its predecessor. You can choose to follow the action on foot and if you do. be prepared to be splattered with mud as the actors dig into the all-tm-realistic two-inetre-deep

trenches or you can watch from a more conventional seating bank. Only slightly more conventional. though. for thanks to another feat of Dudleyesque engineering wizardry. this is a seating bank that will follow the action for you. sliding along the side of the shed as the play progresses from eager conscription fever and the comedy of soldierly camaraderie to the killing fields of France. Glasgow might have stopped thinking big. but Brydcn has not.

If the style of The Big l’icnic harks back to the director‘s ground-breaking promenade produc- tions of The illysteries and Lark Rise in the late- 7()s and mid—80s at the National Theatre. its subject matter is reminiscent of his l‘)72 Royal Lyceum play Willie Rough. which was set in the (‘lydeside shipyards of the Great War. He admits that the background reading he did at that time made it easier to draw together the script for The Big Picnic. but his field of reference is nonethe-

Big Picnic director Bill Brydcn

lcss broad. ‘There are obvious examples.‘ he says over coffee on another manic day of meetings and preparations. ‘l’aths o/‘(I/orv by Stanley Kubrick is a wonderful movie. and of course All Quiet on the ll'estern Brunt. liven more telling is the BBC series The Great War which was done in the 50s or the (ills. Some of the newsreel footage from Britain and Germany is extraordinary the emotional memory ofthut summerof 1914. when

the sun was shining and it was the beginning of

the end of a generation: that mad optimism and that mad volunteer spirit hit the country like a plague. A good image is Stanley Spencer's Ship- building on the (‘l_vi/e triptych. where there are riveters. carpenters. plumbers. all in one great fresco. That‘s a good image. a busy. but hopefully quite confident stab.‘

Brydcn is well aware of the combination of

foolhardiness and naively that helped fuel the tragedy of the Great War. but his play is not driven by an explicitly political motive. The Big l’icnic might have parallels with Joan

Littlewood‘s ()/1 What (1 Lovely War its use of

music. its portrayal of the ordinary soldier's experience. its scene about the Christmas Day

omme you win

cease-fire but Brydcn is not trying to make a pacifist statement. What really sets The Big Picnic apart from its influences is its specific Govan point of view. ‘I was very clear that it was about these young men from Govan.’ he says. adding that The Ship and The Big Picnic could one day form a trilogy of plays that have broad popular appeal and particular relevance to the area. ‘I could see them so clearly. It’s strange though. for the casting. because when you look at the old newsreels and see people of eighteen. nineteen or twenty. they don’t look like boys. they have a strange maturity about them. What marks the great war photographers is a frozen moment. the faces absolutely mortal yet immortal. I don’t know how you act that. There's an inner life that the actors will have to find. Also with the Great War. everyone knows it is a tragedy it is about the death of a generation and the madness of enthusiasm. You have got to keep the audience in optimism as long as the characters are in optimism. Hopefully there is enough humour and particular detail of Govan to divert the audience until the end.‘

The young actors playing the new recruits will be joined by an esteemed Scottish line-up including Jimrry Logan. Russell Hunter. Morag Hood. lain McColl and Juliet Cadzow. ‘There’s something terribly romantic about what was the most unromantic war.‘ says Jimmy Logan. who is a loyal supporter of Erskine Hospital where his own father convalesced after being wounded in 1917. ‘There was a place in Glasgow 1 once went to on my father’s behalf and there were stalls like where you would put the grain for horses left legs in one lot. right legs in another. left arms. right arms. hands . . . there’s nothing glamorous about war. I don’t think at the end of The Big Picnic people will want to rush out and join up it’sjust part of our history and it involves the emotions of very ordinary people.‘

Brydcn points out that however familiar the tale of World War l rnigbt seem. its tragic heroes were bitten by a compulsive optimism that infects us even now. Capturing our imaginations with a set of characters full of youthful foibles and idealism. Brydcn aims to make us relive this passage of modern history with the same sense of hope that drove so many young men to believe that they would be the ones to live to see the end of it. And Brydcn the showman will be using every theatrical trick be can muster to persuade us that perhaps this time the story will be different. ‘I know this doesn’t look to you like the most splendid theatre in the world.’ he said at the press launch. his words echoing round the cavernous engine shed. ‘but it is my favourite. I‘ve been at the National. at the Opera House. all over the world doing plays and this is better than Broadway.‘ U The Big Picnic. Harland and Wolf], Oman. [4 September—30 ()ctober. Script published in the current edition of Theatre Scotland magazine.

The List ‘) 22 September ION 7