Rantin and Raving: an interview with Kieran Hurley

David Overend
University of Edinburgh

When I first interviewed Kieran Hurley, in London in 2012, his show Hitch (2009) had just opened at Camden People’s Theatre. That year, Hurley also presented Beats (2012) at the Arches arts centre in Glasgow. We talked about the importance of journeys in these early performances: how the promise of momentum propelled his protagonists out of their limited geographical and political situations and allowed them to connect to something bigger.1 These were coming-of-age tales of disillusioned young people finding their place in the world. In both cases, a political awakening took place as individual characters connected with temporary communities of resistance. In Hitch, this was the explicitly political community of activists protesting at the G8 summit in L’Aquila, Italy; whereas Beats took place against the backdrop of 90s rave culture, with its hundreds of bodies asserting their right to be together. These plays launched a political trajectory that I have followed with interest ever since.

In my article on ‘Kieran Hurley’s Aesthetic Communities’ in issue 29.2 of Contemporary Theatre Review, I turn to Jacques Rancière to help me make sense of the various forms of community that are present in Hurley’s work. Focussing on Hitch and Beats along with two subsequent plays, Rantin (2013) and Heads Up (2016), I argue that these performances negotiate the relationship between three distinct types of community: ‘the theatre audience; those engaged in political struggles, encountered and recounted through his stories; and ultimately, an aspirational political collective in the making.’ In the latter two plays, the focus broadens to consider the construction and composition of cities and states; but the concerns that informed the earlier work are consistently addressed. Trish Reid astutely identifies these as ‘the challenges of becoming politically engaged in an increasingly confused world; the remarkable kindness of strangers; the hesitancy one inevitably feels in a world that seems overwhelmingly large; and how one might connect with others and consequently make a meaningful contribution.’2 Hurley’s theatre offers a convivial space to rehearse these political challenges of twenty-first century life.

Throughout these four plays, Hurley also explores the potential of the audience-as-community. As he begins to take a wider perspective through the multiple narrative structures of the later works, the audience are implicated in the multiplicity of human connections conjured up by his stories. Direct address has always been central to these performances, allowing an acknowledgement of the co-existence of the audience in the same time and space as the performer. The solo performance, Heads Up, uses a new strategy with its second person narrative, with Hurley addressing the characters as ‘you’ throughout and blurring the boundaries between various forms of community. In that play, the author also briefly writes himself into the narrative, drawing attention in the narrative to ‘a man sat at a desk telling a story about the end of the world’.3 Shifting to the third person, he tells us that he has decided what has to happen. The agency and authority of the playwright-performer is acknowledged, and the politics of creativity are opened up to the same critical scrutiny as the subjects of the stories. The combined effect of these shifting registers and scales of storytelling seems to me to be an assertion of connectivity, and of our consequent responsibility to each other. I conclude the article with the assertion that these plays show us ‘that we are intricately and unavoidably part of the same world’ and that ‘recognising this human condition, with all our divergences, conflicts, tensions and disconnections, might allow us to move forward into the future.’

In the years following these plays, Hurley has continued to explore many of the same themes, often by returning to a tighter narrative focus than the fragmented vignettes of Rantin and Heads Up. For example, Mouthpiece, which opened at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2018, is about a writer who appropriates someone else’s story. This tense and uncomfortable two-hander asks new questions about class hierarchies and the ethics of representation. Alongside his work in theatre, Hurley has also written a film adaptation of Beats (2019), an opportunity to refocus his concerns through a different medium with a very different relationship with its audience. A unique brand of experimental storytelling has now moved beyond its autobiographical origins in Hitch to explore divergent routes and imagine new destinations. This interview aims to bring us up to date, asking Hurley about the ways in which his recent work had evolved beyond the ideas explored in the article. Our conversation addressed ongoing themes: the importance of community, the politics of writing, writing for film and the openness of endings. The film serves as a coda to the article, but in the spirit of many of the endings of these plays, it aims to open up new paths for future research on a writer who continues to ask vital questions about individual agency, the power of community, and the politics of co-existence.

David Overend is a Lecturer in Drama and Performance Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research interests are interdisciplinary but focus on contemporary theatre and performance, often at the intersection with cultural geography. He has directed work for several theatres including the National Theatre of Great Britain; and his research has explored the performance of mobilities, democracy and wildness. davidoverend.net

Thanks to John Quinn (University of the West of Scotland) for his generous support in filming this interview.

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  1. David Overend. ‘Making Routes: Relational journeys in contemporary performance’. Studies in Theatre and Performance, 33, (2013), pp. 365-381.
  2. Trish Reid, Contemporary Scottish Plays (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. xviiii.
  3. Kieran Hurley, Heads Up (London: Oberon, 2017), p. 27

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