Arts: Things to do with a turkey baster

Liz Lochhead's latest hit play is not autobiographical. But then again she likes to write about evacuees, Dracula and kitchen utensils. By Sue Wilson
Click to follow
JENNY JOSEPH'S famous paean to disgraceful ageing - "When I am old I shall wear purple" - is only the best-known articulation of the subversive freedoms many women find themselves enjoying later in life. Having reached the point where they may not be past it - even if a youth- obsessed world might beg to differ - they are certainly past caring what the world thinks.

So it is, perhaps, that 51-year-old Scottish playwright and poet Liz Lochhead can come out with statements such as, "I think people go to the theatre to see the truth", quite heedless of the outrage she's committing against received post-Modernist wisdom.

Lochhead's salty disdain for the "modish" (a word she uses several times to illustrate everything she and her work aren't) has the force of fresh vindication behind it, given the thoroughgoing success of her Edinburgh Fringe hit Perfect Days: a sellout Traverse run, a Fringe First, a London transfer in the offing and a Channel 4 film deal.

There is irony here, certainly in the subtitle "A Romantic Comedy" - an epithet usually reserved these days for cutesy American date movies starring Meg Ryan or Jennifer Aniston. The play is about a 39-year-old Glaswegian hairdresser and local TV celebrity, Barbs Marshall, attempting to embark on single parenthood with the help of her gay male best friend and a turkey baster. (No, says Lochhead, there's no autobiographical subtext: "I had to go out and buy a turkey baster to see what one looked like, and I'd rather have a bad plate of whelks than a baby.")

There is real subversion, too, beneath the play's traditional staging and narrative structure, not least in its depiction of the choices open to women of Barb's age and circumstances: single, self-made, financially secure, worldly-wise and sexually assured. While she might initially be seen as hemmed in, rather than liberated by the inexorable ticking of her biological clock, Lochhead's treatment of her response to the situation has elicited its share - though emphatically a minority one - of male disapproval, the kind that generally ill-conceals defensive unease.

"A few critics went on about her making these cold, `clinical' decisions, or that she hadn't thought through the implications of her behaviour, or I'd avoided the moral issues. I was partly interested in the moralities of having a baby on your own, but in the context that the notion itself actually isn't any major skin off Barbs's nose in moral terms, not these days.

"The taboos she's broaching are deeper ones, unwritten ones, to do with her exercising autonomous choices, or her right to be a mother - whether she's entitled to demand that right, given that she can. As I see it, the way she goes about it is simply the solution this particular loving couple - her and her gay pal, Brendan - arrive at, out of the various options that are open to them."

Perfect Days looks set to mark a breakthrough for Lochhead, in terms of bringing her blend of pungent colloquial humour and penetrating emotional insight before a wider audience. She has long had both critical respect and popular affection within Scotland, where she's known both for her poetry (plus her skill at performing it, and her plays, - Blood and Ice, Mary Queen of Scots Had Her Head Chopped Off, Jock Tamson's Bairns - or her adaptations of classics into Scots, such as Tartuffe and Dracula. Despite this, her work has only had one major outing in London when Mary Queen of Scots... transferred to the Donmar Warehouse, but not before she'd resisted suggestions that she "tone down" its broad vernacular idiom in deference to tender southern ears.

While in a post-Trainspotting world such crassness is mercifully less common, Lochhead remains conscious of the expectations metropolitan commentators often harbour towards Scottish work. "There is almost this attitude now of, what's the point of these people being Scottish if they're not going to do drugs and stuff," she says. "It's like, if they're just going to be middle-class like us, why do they need a Scottish accent?"

Another instance of such perceptions is the accusation that Scottish playwrights, in the light of the impending Scottish parliament, are currently neglecting their duty by failing to write on "political" subjects. Quite apart from the presumption implicit in dictating to anyone what they "should" be writing about, Lochhead argues that the charge suggests an extremely narrow and outdated definition of political drama.

"I'd like to know what these people think politics is," she says. "Because for me it's about how people live their lives. Perfect Days, for example, is all about families. What does family mean? The new kinds of families people are creating, how they compare with the old ones - I mean, political issues don't actually come much hotter just now. It's like the critics who said the play was just a bit of froth, or that it was all terribly cliched. Since when have birth and love and mortality, the very stuff of life itself, been frothy or frivolous subjects? Just because a situation might be cliched, like the fact that for women of Barbs's age it really is now or never when it comes to having a child, doesn't mean it goes away or gets resolved. By writing about cliches or truisms, you're not going to change them, but you can examine them and maybe give people a moment's freedom from their strictures, as they observe them operating on somebody else."

Not content with one major premiere within a month, Lochhead has a second new play opening at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum this week, barely leaving herself time to recover from Perfect Days' last-night party. Strictly speaking, Britannia Rules is the completion of an earlier project, Shanghaied, a tale of Second World War evacuees from Clydebank, originally aimed mainly at younger audiences. The finished version features this existing piece, somewhat rewritten, followed by a brand-new second half set on Coronation Day, examining the intervening years' impact on the characters.

"It's very different from Perfect Days," Lochhead says. "It's not plot- driven in the same way, but more in the sort of Chekhov mode. Watching people hurt each other by accident, by what they say, or by not listening - and also helping each other quite movingly at moments. It's about the heroism of ordinary people, I suppose - but people who are often hiding their emotions from each other. The trick is to show, in just brief glimpses, how these characters really feel. Mostly they try to act as well as they can, like we all do, but their true selves or feelings are often revealed in those moments when they're turned away from everyone else."

Which brings us back to that tendentious assertion about theatre's responsibility to deliver "the truth". It's an outcome Lochhead sees as emerging, ideally, from the contract between audience, writer and company, achieved through an interplay of affirmation and revelation. "I think people want to see something about their lives being explained, I know I do," she says. "When the truthfulness of people's lives is shared with other people, through fiction or drama, they're able to empathise or understand each other that bit more. They can witness these moments of unguarded or private feeling. They can recognise elements of themselves in these characters' experiences and through that maybe see, or even laugh at things which they couldn't in real life."

`Britannia Rules', Royal Lyceum, until 3 Oct, box office 0131-248 4848