Pointing the finger at Irvine Welsh

Controversial Scottish drama in an acid house setting. Is this the future of theatre or just more 'Trainspotting' hype? Dominic Cavendish sees 'Headstate'
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The Independent Culture
"Thas the real fokking Edinburr-uh." A skinhead, stripped to his waist, radio-miked, wired, is doing laps of what was once a converted church, encircling a worried-looking flock with the kind of manic persistence a sheepdog would get an award for. "Make yoorselves at hoam," his voice growls over the amps, before being subsumed by a tidal wave of techno. A couple of young Jocks - peroxide crops, baggy lime green tops - go into an instant trance-dance; the majority just gaze at the lights. With its crowd-elbowing physicality, its effing and blinding, its drug parlance, video projections and hardcore beat, the opening rush of Headstate has Irvine Welsh written all over it.

As do the posters. Having latched on to Welsh's talent in 1992, a year before the world first saw Edinburgh through Trainspotting's wizened junkie eyes, Paul Pinson, director of the experimental Scottish company Boilerhouse, clearly feels entitled to flaunt the name. "Headstate is the only thing in theatre that Irvine has personally worked on," he says, "and his ideas about performance are to be found here." Those ideas include throwing out conventional motions about "plays" and "playwrights". "He was brought in as a writer to give shape to what everyone - the actors, the designers, the composer (Graham Cunnington of industrial noise-merchants Test Department) and myself - came up with." The unknown Welsh was part of the democratic team, alternately tapping at his laptop and dirtying his hands in improvisations ("I'll never forget seeing him lying tied up, face down on the floor with a lighted candle stuck in his bottom").

The final draft did not include the candle scene. Nor any starring role for Welsh. His fame and fortune soon swept him off elsewhere (currently India), but his thirtysomething (or fortysomething?) spirit lingers on. It was his insistence that Headstate should have a club setting which gave this ambitious state-of-the-nation piece its defining character. The emphasis was on using popular forms from the past 15 years - such as karaoke, stand-up and repetitive beats - to examine the value system of a generation that had only known conservative rule. This helped steer it away from agit-prop and into the theatrically uncharted and de-politicised waters of rave culture.

There is no easy enemy in Headstate: the three tab-popping misfits end up battering to death the personification of their salvation - a woman who sells love rather than sex. Martin, a highly entrepreneurial skinhead butcher (played with extraordinary sweat-drenched viciousness by Tam Dean Burn), a man who claims he gave birth to acid house, decides to prostitute the corpse for HIV positive and necrophiliac clients.

When it was first performed in 1994, it secured the scorn of "the Scottish theatre establishment" (as Burns puts it) and even the dismay of some club-goers, who thought it too downbeat. But as far as Welsh was concerned, the critical reaction simply reflected how out of touch some people were with the new counter-culture, which is rooted, he believes, in a re-ascendant working class. In his introduction to the published script, he writes: "The bourgeois cultural fascists of the media and arts establishments could never bring themselves to concede that an 18-year-old unemployed person with a set of decks ... might be far more adept at exploring their social and spiritual identity than they could ever hope to be." And he said as much in the post-show discussions at the time.

Pinson isn't entirely of one mind with Welsh. Indebted to the establishment for being able to mount Headstate in the first place, let alone revive it, his aim is to push it, and other radical work, into the limelight. "This should be in the International Festival, not the Fringe," he says. "There should be an official connection with radical, indigenous work, rather than just playing host to the likes of Robert Lepage."

Tam Dean Burn, whom Welsh introduced to the "underground" during rehearsals and who claims it changed his life, has no truck with his director's attitude. "You can't dabble in that scene - you are either part of it or you are not. I say, fuck habitual theatre-goers. If they don't like it, who cares? We're not interested in appealing to dull, liberal, middle-class tastes." And to prove it, he has joined Artthrob, a collective that will take performance directly into clubs.

The tension between these two viewpoints is one that Welsh himself, in danger of becoming more brand name than cult hero, almost embodies. Headstate is caught between selling itself on Welsh, the disposable commodity, and appealing to the allegedly more durable cultural flux to which the author stakes a claim. Jan Knightley, who has been in the cast since the start, has no patience with either camp. "It's been an interesting experience, but as an actor I've realised that I never want to have the kind of audience that is automatically on my side and I want to deal in real, not synthetic, emotions."

As for Welsh, he shakes his head. "There are a lot of old people suddenly going, 'Hey, I'm part of this rave thing, and in fact I invented it.' Yeh, well that's just a load of crap."

Headstate runs to 31 Aug, venue 90, Cafe Graffiti (0131-557-8330). Tickets are available on the Internet: www.ticketserver.co.uk. The world premiere of the first part of the Acid House film trilogy, 'The Granton Star Cause', is showing at 6pm Wed and 1pm Sun at the Filmhouse Cinema, Lothian Road (0131-228-4051)

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