By Tara Fitzpatrick
Alan Bissett is off duty. Temporarily. We meet in Glasgow as he prepares for the Fringe premiere of (More) Moira Monologues, the sequel or update to his hit 2009 one-man (or one-woman) show about a loud, chatty, working-class Falkirk woman, getting things off her chest. He is enjoying a post-rehearsal wine and is feeling optimistic for the fast-approaching festival.
Bissett is no stranger to the madness of the Fringe, having revived his 2009 performance for a 10-night run last year, however when we meet he admits to still feeling the nerves.
“With a Fringe show you essentially have about three things that you’ve got to get right,” he tells me. “One is your own performance, two is the reviews and three is people actually turning up. If any one of those things doesn’t go well you might have a really bad experience.
“But if all those things go well you’ll have a really enjoyable time. It’s the best feeling in the world. But there’s a lot of worry and a lot of prep and anxiety in order to try and bring that about.”
Pre-2009 Bissett was most well-known as a novelist. His works, including Death of a Ladies Man (2009) which followed a divorced teacher as he enters a life of hedonism and sexual escapades and Pack Men (2011) about the clash of Rangers fans with Manchester police at the 2008 Uefa cup final, each explore the social and political undercurrents of Scottish society.
Using his upbringing as inspiration for his work is common for Bissett, who grew up in Hallglen. His debut novel, Boyracers (2001), documents its protagonist’s coming-of-age realisation that more may lie beyond the boundaries of Falkirk.
Moira was born out of similar inspiration yet he admits to having no real ambitions for theatre writing when he began creating the character. “I started writing this character as a prose piece thinking it would be a short story. The very first scene in the first Moira Monologues I wrote as a short story in first person narrative in Scots dialect.
“It was sort of based on the women in my family: aunties, some of my cousins, my sister. I just put them all into one character. It was one of these things that wrote itself, and writing isn’t always like that.”
“My flatmate at the time, came home from work and I told her I had just written a story and asked if I could read it to her. She’s from Newcastle and she totally got it right away, I thought this is good it’s not just a Falkirk thing, and it’s not even just a Scottish thing.
“But then she said I really like it but it’s not a short story, it’s a stage piece. So she set me this challenge to write another one of those every day and read it to her when she get home from work. By the end of the week I had a whole play with six scenes.”
There are arguably few plays on the Scottish theatre scene, bar perhaps the pantomime sphere, which are written with working class audiences in mind. “People think of theatre as being for snobs,” says Bissett nodding in agreement. “And you know what? I used to feel like that (sometimes I still feel like that). I think the reason Moira was so popular is because there was a section of Scottish society, specifically working class women, who have not been well represented on stage. There’s The Steamie which is the first one everyone thinks of, and there’s Men Should Weep, but where are the modern women? I wasn’t seeing the women who brought me up represented. These were strong, powerful women who are natural storytellers, I wasn’t seeing them centre stage. So Moira was my attempt to rectify that.”
The text, which became the play, was first performed at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library Theatre as part of the Aye Write literary festival. Bissett had not always intended to perform it himself. “My first thought was I’ve never written for stage before this is great, I’ll need to find a female actor now.
“But later I thought fuck it, I’m going to do it! It was totally out my comfort zone which is all the more reason. You do have to scare yourself or else you’re not going anywhere new. thought to myself, I know these women, I know how they talk, how they move, this is more of an artistic statement if I’ve not only written it but I’m prepared to perform it.”
Despite its unintentional beginnings, Moira has become one of Bissett’s most successful works having a sold-out run when he revisited the role for the Glasgow International Comedy Awards in 2016. This, in part, is why he chose to revive the act for this year’s Fringe.
“The problem I had,” he tells me, “was that the show was eight years old. And then, Scotland was a very different place, this was pre-referendum, pre-Brexit, there wasn’t even a Tory government at the time. It was a very very different Scotland.
“For example there’s a scene at the end of the first play when they’re watching the Scotland game and someone says ‘We’d have won that match if we were an independent nation’ and Moria rips him to shreds because at the time the thought of independence seemed impossible and that’s why it got a laugh but now the whole context has changed.
“So I realised Moira is still stuck in 2009, where is she now? What is she doing? What does she think of Brexit? The referendum? Donald Trump?”
With this in mind, Bissett wrote (More) Moira Monologues and enlisted the help of Sacha Kyle as director. “I’ve really needed her,” says Bissett of his work with Kyle. “There have been moments where she’s told me things like ‘there’s no way a woman would say that’ and I’ve thought fair enough, which one of us has the life experience here?”
Throughout the play Moira gives her thoughts on all things from alcohol to men to neighbourhood gossip. While the Moira Monologues is not political theatre, like with much of Bissett’s work, political undercurrents sweep through the text. Having been an influential voice for the Yes campaign in the 2014 independence referendum, I wonder whether Bissett thinks politics is impossible to ignore in his writing.
“In my opinion, there’s no such thing as an apolitical person. Even people that say they’re not political usually have something to say when you ask their opinion on a subject.”
Bissett is known for his activism. On the night of Scotland’s referendum, The Pure, The Dead and the Brilliant, Bissett’s satire of Scottish politics in which the banshees and selkies of Scottish folklore consider the independence question, performed at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre. Just as activists filled George Square with saltires, hopefuls for a Yes vote filled the Tron.
While a Yes vote may not have followed, Bissett’s contribution to the left-leaning independence movement has not dissipated. Prior to the 2017 general election, he considered the idea of voting for Labour under Jeremy Corbyn but, having truly lost faith in the Labour party, he explained his decision to support the SNP on social media. “I realised I’ll never vote for a unionist party this side of independence,” he tells me.
I wonder whether he feels those in the arts have a duty to engage with the political conversation. He nods, “this answer might require another drink” he laughs.
“I think the artistic community produced a really great amount of work in 2014 which will stand the test of time but artists inevitably have to move on from things, a bit like Bob Dylan in the 60s when he realised he was the voice of a generation and he had to completely react against it.
“There’s also a bigger picture now, Brexit is a bigger picture, Trump is a bigger picture. I don’t feel any excitement about these things like I did with the Scottish referendum, then I felt optimism now I just feel terror.”
“Personally, I still really care about these issues but I don’t want to be talking about Scottish independence all the time in my work I want to have the freedom to write whatever I want.”
And so he has. Returning to a character he thought he had retired. I cannot help but ask if he is worried about creating a sequel to something so originally successful? “Yes” he admits. He ponders the idea that audiences may consider it inferior to the first play. “I mean you want to be writing The Godfather 2 not Jaws 2,” he laughs then pauses “but please don’t write Alan Bissett has written his Godfather 2!
“But the second play does sort of deepen and extend the first one, it’s a bit like that. But I’ve also tried to write in such a way that those who haven’t seen the first will still get it.”
On that note we wrap things up. A few weeks later I’m sitting in the Scottish Storytelling Centre (venue 30 at this year’s Fringe) waiting to see (More) Moira Monologues. The queue is spreading by the time I arrive and circling round the foyer into the café.
It seems, from where I’m sitting, that the risk on writing a sequel to his most popular character has well and truly paid off.
(More) Moira Monologues performs at the Scottish Storytelling Centre until August 28.