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Alan Bissett On ... The Red Hourglass

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Glenfiddich Scottish Writer of the Year and "rising star" (The Scotsman), Alan Bissett performs his first new works since The Moira Monologues, which was at the Royal Exchange in 2010. He returns the venue later this month in the Red Hourglass. Bissett plays five parts: three male, two female, none of them human, locked up together in a mysterious facility. We caught up with him to find out more.

Can you tell us a bit about your new show?

It is set in a glass tank in a scientific research facility.  There are five characters - four spiders and a wasp - and I play all of them.  Each character gets their own monologue and their own story.  It’s funny and dark and even a little bit sexy in places, and beneath it all there’s something to say about human politics too.

What inspired you to write it?
I’m quite arachnophobic, so it was a way of confronting that without actually having to hold any real spiders!  I started researching my phobia and gradually the different species started to feel like different personalities.  So in my head, the Common House spider is this working-class lad; the Recluse spider is a nervy, Woody Allen type; the Tarantula is a macho, swaggering Venezualan revolutionary; the Black Widow is a seductive murderess.  Put them all in a glass tank together and you have a drama.  Sometimes we can best explore human behaviour through animals - Watership Down, Animal Farm, and so on.  The Red Hourglass is my version of that.

Do you find writing cathartic?
I do.  Obviously with this one I’m exploring my own phobia, but I think that powerful writing comes out of the cracks in our personalities: our pain, our fears, our addictions, our anger, our lust. If you’re just writing about how happy your life is, well I’m pleased for you, but the music and films and books which connect with us go a bit deeper than that.  Art is where we can tell the truth to each other, without consequences. Theatre is a place where we can have experience a sort of controlled, collective insanity. It’s quite a release, for the playwright, the performers and the audience.

You have performed in Manchester before. What do you like about the city?

Manchester is not only a working-class city, which makes it easy for a Scot to relate to, but it’s really rock n roll.  When I was a teenager Manchester had this aura about it, cos of the Hacienda, The Happy Mondays, The Smiths, Stone Roses, Oasis, etc. It’s by far my favourite English city for that reason. London’s too big, and there are too many rich arseholes there. Manchester is just the right size, but still has an energy about it. Kinda reminds me of Glasgow. Also my last novel was set there: Pack Men, about a group of Rangers fans who travel down for the 2008 Uefa Cup Final, which ended with rioting.

And the Royal Exchange?
I have very good memories of performing a double bill of my plays The Ching Room and The Moira Monologues there in 2010.  It’s a marvellous building, with an incredible history, and I was really pleased about the way in which the audiences took to my work. I didn’t know how well they’d travel at that point. The Royal Exchange gave me faith that my plays could play beyond Scotland.

How would you describe the piece in three words?
Spidery. Waspish. Sexy.

What was the last thing you saw on stage that you enjoyed?

The Glasgow Girls, which was written by David Greig and directed by Cora Bissett. It was about a group of asylum seekers in Glasgow, but instead of being a Po-faced piece of worthy theatre it was a full-on rollercoaster musical. The songs were great. The onstage energy was amazing. And it was an important, political story too.

Have you got any ideas for your next production?
The next one is way out there.  It’s called Ban This Filth! and it’s on at the Edinburgh Fringe. I play both myself, ‘Alan Bissett’, and the radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, and we have this combative, dramatic dialogue with each other. It’s about porn culture and the way that men are socially constructed. I wanted to do something really radical and challenging. Then after that? The Moira Monologues 2, which will just be fun.  And of course, I’ll be taking that to Manchester, since I brought the prequel there before.

Alan Bissett was speaking to Glenn Meads

The Red Hourglass is at the Royal Exchange Studio in Manchester from 22 - 23 April.


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