Gregory Burke: Bringing men in crisis to a stage near you

It's his first play and already the National beckons. Lesley McDowell meets Gregory Burke
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The Independent Culture

Gregory Burke likes a joke. But then he can afford to see the funny side. At 32, his very first play, Gagarin Way, about a heist that goes wrong, is about to premiere at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre. A month later it transfers to the National Theatre in London. A violent and humorous take on power, politics and masculinity, the play owes as much to literary forefathers Beckett and Behan as it does to Burke's home town of Dunfermline, and the street in the communist-filled village of Lumphinnans in Fife from which it takes its name.

A little dollop of Irvine Welsh perhaps, some Sartrean philosophy, a good dose of Marxism just to help it all along and there you have it. A potential bruise of a hit packed with testosterone, where grand narratives are alive and kicking alongside clear, brutal anger. So far, so macho. Until it is transformed by Burke's intelligent script, self-deprecating humour and the Traverse's literary director John Tiffany, who liked Burke's lack of arrogance and that fact that his play "just made me laugh so much."

"I think that laughter is the best thing that can be said," Tiffany says of his attraction to the play, "and that it felt really appropriate for now, in terms of its politics." Burke's script was sent out to readers, who responded positively, there was another reading and now, 18 months later, it's here. For Burke, whose previous theatrical experience was, by his own admission, minimal, it has all come as a bit of a shock. "I'd read lots of plays and I always thought I'd write something but not necessarily a play," he explains. "It was just when I started writing that I found dialogue easier. I can't describe things!"

He probably could if he put his mind to it. Gagarin Way emerged from Burke's interest in Francis Fukuyama's Marxist study of history, The End of Politics, and from his own experience working in factories after dropping out of an economics course at Stirling University.

Burke was brought up in Dunfermline until the age of nine when his family emigrated to Gibraltar. When they returned seven years later, Burke experienced a sense of dislocation, the kind of alienation that pervades his play. Four men are trapped in a room together – Eddie is angry, frustrated, prone to violence; Tom is young, ready to believe he has a future and an important place in the world. Eddie's partner-in-crime, socialist-anarchist Gary, arrives with his hostage, Frank, a company director whom he taunts with threats of anarchy and revolution. "It's Gary who's crushed," Burke explains. "He still has socialism, but it's an outdated thing." As a result, it can't help him.

The disappearance of socialism in an increasingly globalised market economy has as much resonance as it did when Burke began writing his play as it does with recent events in Genoa. "I found that in a lot of the factories where I worked, guys who were just a few years older than me, even just 10 years older, were quite politically motivated and wanted to get workers unionised in places where there was no union recognition. But people like myself didn't really care. I didn't see any point in it."

And yet he has produced a piece of work with a powerful political message. The irony doesn't escape him. "The play's about your own inadequacies too," he says. "Victimisation was as great in the late 19th century if you tried to get a union going, but they still did it. So why am I, for instance, so apathetic and also maybe not brave enough? I'd be crap as a political terrorist. I'd never be able to blow myself up; I'd just blow up a bit of myself and be maimed for life."

The loss of male power in a world less dependent on heavy industry is part of this sense of inadequacy. The language of men can be brutal – "it's punctuation, in Fife especially. But it's never used in a sexual manner. If you say, 'who's that c--t?', you're pointing to a man. If you're pointing to a woman, you'd say 'who's she?" – but reinforces a sense of male desperation. "Men are racked with insecurity and going round in circles," says Burke, which, he argues, makes them funnier subjects.

"I've never understood why anybody wanted power," he says, finally. "At the end of the day, it's an apparatus, that's all. And I'm not trying to give answers, or send out some political message. My play's not going to change anyone's life. It's just words."

It's changed your life, I say. He pauses. "Yeah. It has."

Gagarin Way: Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (0131 228 1404) from Wednesday; Royal National Theatre/Cottesloe, London SE1 (020 452 3000), 28 September to 23 October

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