Playwright Gregory Burke burst onto the scene last year with Gagarin Way, a hard-hitting black comedy about working class men trying to make a political statement with a human heist that goes terribly wrong.
Before writing this debut, Burke had never even been to the theatre. He dropped out of Stirling University and for several years worked, like his characters, as a "minimum wage slave" with a variety of jobs in Scotland.
Gagarin Way premiered at the Traverse Theatre during the 2001 Edinburgh Festival, when it won a Fringe First, the Best of the Fringe First Awards and The Scotsman Readers' Favourite Award. A co-production with the National Theatre, it then transferred to London and the NT Cottesloe last autumn for two sell-out runs.
Along the way, Gagarin Way has been hailed as one of the best plays of 2001 by the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, Observer and the Mail on Sunday. Nominated for a Whatonstage.com Award and the Olivier Award for Best New Play, the play has also just won Burke the 2002 Critics' Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright. Last month, the National Theatre awarded Burke the year-long Pearson bursary, with an option to produce his next play.
Gagarin Way transfers this week to the West End, where it opens at the Arts Theatre on 6 March 2002, following previews from 27 February.
Date & place of birth
Born on 2 August 1968 in Dunfermline, Scotland.
Lives now in...
Brixton, south London. I've only just moved down to London permanently this week. I've been down most of the time since Gagarin Way opened at the National, but I've been staying with my cousin. Now I've got the Pearson bursary, and will be attached to the National for a year, I've moved into my own place. Moving house has been hectic - especially with the West End opening at the same time - I've got a really bad cold out of it.
Who are your favourite actors?
I have loads. I do like Ian McKellen and Lindsay Duncan. I also really like the French actor Vincent Cassel. I was thinking about him because I was in Paris at the weekend, reading Gagarin Way at the Comédie Française. There’s a full production planned for Paris for next year, and I'd love to get Cassel to do it there. I don't know if I'd have the guts to ask really famous people to be in one of my plays, though.
Who are your favourite playwrights?
I like a lot of Irish writers, especially Brendan Behan and Samuel Beckett. I like David Mamet and Arthur Miller as well. I read all sorts - I like a bit everybody.
What play (by someone else) would you most like to have written?
I really liked Jez Butterworth's Mojo. There are parts that are really funny - some of those passages when the gangsters in it are talking nonsense to each other. I mean absolute nonsense about wanting boots of baby buckskin, stitched by elves. That stuck in my head. That sort of humour appeals to me.
If you were an actor, what role would you most like to play?
I haven't ever wanted to be an actor. I always think when I watch them, god I couldn't get up there and do that. You have to be a certain type of person or it would be an impossible job, and I'm not that type of person. You need pure old-fashioned confidence in yourself, lots of it.
In your opinion, what's the best thing currently on stage?
There's a play that hasn't been produced yet, but it got a reading in France. It's called The Mentalists and it's by Richard Bean. I think it's brilliant. It's an extremely funny two-hander about two middle-aged men going slowly mad in a hotel room. It got a reading in France, too, and it's going to be on at the Lyttelton in July.
What differences do you think there are between theatre in Scotland vs England?
There's no comparison between Scottish and English theatre. English theatre is so much bigger in every way. In Scotland, there's the Traverse, the Citizens and the Tron, but outside of that, there's not so much. There's much more opportunity here, particularly in London.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
There's only one thing that secures any industry - that's money, isn't it? But I don't know if the government should be more involved. Government involvement usually destroys most things.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
An 18th-century French aristocrat before the Revolution. One of those people who had to do nothing but go to parties and swan about the countryside. I've always thought I was meant to be idle. I'd want a good 30 years at it so I could go to the guillotine riddled with disease.
Awaydays by Kevin Sampson
Favourite holiday destination
Paris. I've been there for work mainly, but it feels like I'm holiday every time I go.
Everything Homer says in The Simpsons.
The one I spend the most time on is the Dunfermline Athletic Football Club site. I go onto the discussion board and leave messages. Dunfermline always do really badly or at best mediocre. But you can't give it up - being a supporter is passed down to you as a curse, it's where you're from. You don't mind the despair so much, it's the hope that does you in in the end.
Why did you drop out of university & become a 'minimum wage slave'?
I got to my second year at university and just didn't enjoy it. I thought, there's no point in being here, I could get these books out of the library. The reason I did all these rubbish jobs is because I had to - there was no choice. I worked on the production line in a factory, as a dishwasher, as a porter in a hospital - all sorts. Never again. You meet brilliant people in these jobs and you have a brilliant laugh and sometimes you think, why are you here as well. That experience influences everything I do now, it teaches you to get on with it.
What made you want to write a play as opposed to a film or novel?
I don't know why I wrote a play. I'd never even been in a theatre before - I'd read loads of plays but never managed to get off my backside. Of course, there's no theatre in Dunfermline either, we don't even have a bookshop. But I wanted to write something, and it was never going to be a novel because I can't be bothered to describe things. A cup is a cup. Why describe it? An actor can just pick it up. Dialogue, on the other hand, I found really natural.
How does it feel having your first play mounted at the Traverse & National Theatres & now in the West End?
It's incredible. When I talk to other writers, they give me a look like it's not fair and I feel terrible. There are people who've been slogging away writing for years and then I just swan in. But they didn't wash dishes for years - that's how I look at it. I was happy just having Gagarin Way at the Traverse. Everything else is a bonus. I can't explain how it feels really; you just to have enjoy it. From the moment we started rehearsals in Edinburgh until the end of the first run at the National, the company got along really well and we were just having a great laugh. It's been good fun all the way through.
After being a hit in Edinburgh in August, Gagarin Way opened in London just after 11 September, when its terrorist themes & anti-American references obviously took on a different level of meaning. How did you react to this?
There was a moment before it opened in London where we considered making some changes, but then we didn't. We decided to just do it as it was because no offence was meant. The few lines that are anti-American are jokes, and it's not really anti-American. You could just as easily say it's anti-Japanese or anti-European. At the end of the day, they're just hoping that he (the character who is kidnapped) is a foreigner - anything aside from "one of us".
Why do you think Gagarin Way has been so successful?
I think it has to do with the fact that people are having a laugh while talking about big ideas and serious matters. And a lot of the success is down to the actors and to John Tiffany's direction. But I don't know. Success is elusive, you can't really analyse it.
What impact have the awards & other accolades had on you personally?
It does have an impact because it makes everything sort of strange. It can be a bit disorientating. But I've got plenty of friends and family who'd slap me if I ever thought I was anything I wasn't so you don't get too carried way. Awards do raise expectations so that's something to live up to. I'm lucky to have other experienced theatre people around to give me advice. They tell me, take your time with the next one, wait until it's right and you're happy with it.
What can you tell us about your next play?
It's a three-hander for Paines Plough called Contract and it's about betrayal of identity. I'm getting there with it but everybody is urging me to take my time. We're going to start workshopping it this summer.
What other plans do you have for the future?
I'm spending a year doing the Pearson bursary - it started last month and goes through February 2003. You get £5,000 to help with living expenses and they've given me an office to write in. That's great because I need to go somewhere to write. When I'm working from home, I do a lot of hoovering, ironing, washing dishes - anything but writing. It's good to get up in the morning and go to work. It makes me much more productive. The National has the first option on anything I write from that.
Gagarin Way re-opens at the West End's Arts Theatre on 6 March 2002, following previews from 27 February.