To the average reader, a stage version of Alasdair Gray’s monumental novel Lanark might seem unthinkable. Not to Tony Graham and Andy Howitt of TAG Theatre Company. Andrew Burnet interrupted rehearsals to demand an explanation.
Under the vaulted j," " ., .- T“ '_ ’ v as? _' X istold byThe Painterpainting a picture for ceiling of the - '. . . . ‘ I "v
rehearsal room at "I . ' ;_.¢:=5.-°=-’.." .' " ,. '_ Published in l98l. Lanark the Govan Town Hall.a ‘y‘ ‘ ‘ ‘3, -‘ . :35" ' - novel was the fruit of almost 30 chummy Dr Munro - a I ‘ ' . . years’ gestation. ‘lnitially l was is explaining to ' - ' " .. ' ' writing two books.’ explains
Lanark that he can’t leave the Institute just yet. but that the . refectory is serving something really rather palatable. and perhaps... Seconds later. Duncan Thaw is \ bounding enthusiastically around the scaffolding at Cowlairs Parish Church. His mural of Creation is taking shape. but he’s\
Alasdair Gray. much of whose Glaswegian adolescence was spent ' scribbling what he now describes as
‘egoistic. almost hysterical’ writings. ‘I started trying to produce a Scottish version of
James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But at the same time I was very excited by
_ I, Kafka. and Glasgow and Scotland struck me as developing a “350’ 0350 0‘ mcgi‘lomama~ ‘0 say ‘ having a lot in common with The Trial and The nothing of the itchy rash he’s absent-mindedly Castle.‘
scratching. Meanwhile. two mysterious narrators called The Painter and The Catalyst are enveloping the minister in a swelling. operatic version of Thaw’s masterpiece. Readers of Lanark the novel. besides wanting to offer Lanark the person some dietary advice. will recognise that [altar/t the play is some way removed from its source material. lnevitably. it’s a whole new entity. but one which retains the original’s extraordinary blend of disparate elements. The stage version of Alasdair Gray’s groundbreaking novel is being assembled by a large team led by Tony Graham. artistic director of Glasgow’s TAG Theatre Company. ‘I thought it was unstageable originally.’ he admits. ‘lt just seems to have everything in it. Notjust the kitchen sink. but the bits that make the sink. the history of sinks . . . philosophy. politics. art. religion. this world. that world — and then there’s the question: are they one and the same person. Lanark and Duncan Thaw‘.” Gray himself was too busy making a
In about 1952. he discovered E.M.W. Tillyard’s study ofthe epic. ‘He spoke about the form as one that tended to transcend genres by absorbing all of them. and it was at that point that I suddenly thought.’ he recalls with a characteristic. high-pitched chuckle. ‘l’m going to make these two books into one.’
Subtitled A Life in 4 Books. the novel’s ﬁrst two parts contain a realistic account of Duncan Thaw’s childhood. youth. artistic growth. descent into madness and eventual sticky end; but all this is placed within the fantastical frame of Books Three and Four. which tell the story of Lanark’s journey through a surreal, futuristic world of social and political unrest.
Much has been made of the book’s autobiographical nature. but while Thaw. Lanark and an author called Nastler all exhibit certain of his traits. Gray is dismissive of this theme. ‘lt’s tremendously irrelevant.’ he says. ‘There’s a high proportion of invention and editing. I cut out everything from my own life
screenplay from his more recent novel Poor 1, ' 5 ~ and experience,’ he adds, affecting 3 Things to get involved. so the adaptation was j. . - . y 5 melodramatic swagger. ‘That Did Not Tend tackled by Alastair Cording. a man with some -._ . 5? Towards Tragedy.’
\\ .‘ '
experience of bringing ‘difﬁcult’ books to the i .' stage. but as those who’ve followed TAG’s career over the past few years know. words are ,'-' just one part of their armoury. Alasdair .' Nicolson’s score is another central element of I“ 'v the interpretation. lm. ‘1 think the key to it is that it all revolves g.
around the notion of creativity.’ explains f '
Graham. ‘At the core of the story. you have / the sense of Duncan Thaw’s creativity. and ' ' also the creativity of the author. We were thinking about things like. how the hell do 5 we represent the mural and Thaw’s visions? What is the nearest thing on stage to visual art‘.’ For us it was a particular type of music. music that would paint the picture with the fullest range of the palette. So some ofthe story
Whatever its origins. the book was a work of wry genius. in which the cultural and political life of Scotland. the agonies and ecstasies of art. the recent history of Glasgow and the cannibalistic idiocies of capitalism were parcelled up in a mundane yet extravagant tale of two rather imperfect innocents. Anthony Burgess called it ‘a shattering work of ﬁction in the modern idiom’; Brian Aldiss wrote of ‘an overpowering imagination’; Malcolm Bradbury described it as ‘marvellously inventive’.
A milestone it undoubtedly was. but for Gray has it become a millstone? Fourteen years on. with more than half that number of books to his credit. has his magnum opus become his albatross? ‘No.’ he replies. ‘lt’s not hanging round my neck. I’ve left it behind because I’m
10 The List ll-l7 Aug 1995