Mark Stern catches up with Alan Bissett to talk Moira monologues and politics ahead of his new Fringe show
“I mean what’s to say that this is just for folk with English degrees and folk that live in big houses and talk posh and all that kinda thing. This Shakspeare, he wrote in English. I can read English. I can even talk English. I mean, what’s to say this isn’t for the likes of you and me Babs, ken? Maybe we can make this kinda thing ours and all, That’s what I’m thinking.” – Moira Bell
FOR Alan Bissett, the intersection of class and gender in Scotland is key to understanding the inimitable Moira Bell: “Working class people are less visible in British culture than middle class people are. Scottish working class women are even less visible.”
The novelist-playwright-performer has been touring the original Moira Monologues since debuting at the AyeWrite festival in 2009. The play has gone on to be performed across Scotland from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to small working men’s clubs in his native Falkirk.
The play finds Moira Bell, a cleaner and single mother from Falkirk, alone on the stage holding court about wayward dates at the theatre, friendship and football. Funny and smart, Moira is quick to identify the way in which working class women are overlooked. For Bissett, the character is a personal contemplation on the lack of space for female representations of working class identity in Scotland.
“When you think of working class culture you think of football, the bookies, you know, horse racing – male dominated environments.
“If you say to somebody on the street ‘name a play from Scotland featuring working class women?’, they will say The Steamie, and then you say, ‘name another one?’, that is where they start to struggle. Now, I love The Steamie, I think The Steamie is a great play.
“How can there be only one play that has broken through into mainstream, mass consciousness that is about Scottish working class women, and yet Scottish working class women are what keep the whole country together? Disproportionally, they are the ones working to keep families intact.”
The creation of the Moira Monologues as a one-man show – Bissett performs as Moira and any other characters in the scene – reflects Bissett’s personal connection to the content. Moira is an ode to the wit and intelligence of the family matriarchs he grew up around.
“Moira is purely, 100 per cent herself and she doesn’t apologise for it. And those are the women I grew up with, all my mum’s sisters, all of my cousins, they are strong women.”
“Moira is purely, 100 per cent herself and she doesn’t apologise for it. And those are the women I grew up with, all my mum’s sisters, all of my cousins, they are strong women.” Alan Bissett
It is this intimate knowledge of the character that led Bissett to play the character himself.
“She’s the women in my family, and I know their speech patterns, body language and attitude, and how to convey that onstage without having to ‘research’ the part,” he says.
Further, he sees it as fitting within the theatrical tradition of cross-gender acting, a tradition originating from Shakespeare when women did not appear on stage.
“It was also an act of empathy. If, as a man, you can not only write but portray a realistic female character onstage without resorting to drag-act clichés, that goes a long way towards bridging the gender gap. There’s a long tradition in theatre of women playing men and men playing women. This is no different. It’s a playful thing.”
Moira Bell returns to the Fringe next month with a brand new show, (More) Moira Monologues, the first time Bissett has created new content for the character. The amount of time that has passed since the original Moira Monologues is a key determinant in the decision to choose this moment to create a new show around Moira.
“Moira was first written before Brexit, before the independence referendum and before the Tory government [2010 coalition],” Bissett says.
As a familiar voice on the political scene, the recent upheaval from Brexit to last month’s General Election has been influential.
“Brexit has changed everything, for everyone. So, it is not necessarily the case that artists are still beavering away trying to bring about Scottish independence. Now, I think everyone is aware that this is taking place against a backdrop of massive political instability, all across the globe.
“But particularly in the UK because, you know, we are facing an abyss, quite frankly. Brexit is going to be a disaster.”
In the run up to June’s General Election Bissett posted on social media about his intention to vote for Labour, before quickly changing his mind. Bissett wanted Jeremey Corbyn to be the new prime minister, but the situation was complicated by Scottish Labour.
“Kezia Dugdale has been very very explicit that a vote for Labour was a vote against independence,” he explains. “And because I want to bring about Scottish independence, because I think Scotland getting trapped in a post-brexit UK will be a disaster, that is what swayed me.”
Independence remains at the forefront of Bissett’s mind politically, but the current state of the movement is hard to gauge due to the political confusion.
“Obviously I am known to be very vocally pro-independence, but it is not necessarily a show just for those who voted Yes. It is not a show about independence, it is a show about Scottish working class women.” Alan Bissett
“I think this is a disorientating place for a lot of people,” he says. “Partly because the political situation is so scrambled for everybody.
“I mean, if you are a Tory right now, you must be looking on thinking ‘oh my god, how do we get this woman [Theresa May] out of here?’, and yet she has just won the election, which is a very strange state of affairs.
“And meanwhile you have got Labour strutting around vainglorious having just lost a General Election. You have got the most energised and spirited Labour campaign that we have seen in years, but it could not even beat the most shambolic, and disorganised Tory campaign.
“I don’t think the situation will become clarified until it is much more obvious what the timeline is for another referendum.”
Returning to write and play Moira, however, provides Bissett the opportunity to discuss political ideas that are different to his own. He is quick to point out that both the new show and the character of Moira are not defined by political commentary.
“Obviously I am known to be very vocally pro-independence, but it is not necessarily a show just for those who voted Yes. It is not a show about independence, it is a show about Scottish working class women.”
(More) Moira Monologues is written and performed by Alan Bissett and directed by Sacha Kyle. It is on at the Scottish Storytelling Centre (Venue 30), 2-28 August (not 14th/21st), 7pm, £15.
Pictures courtesy of Stephanie Gibson
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