As the world’s largest performance arts festival is underway, we are lucky to have theatre practitioner and critic Masha Tiunova in Edinburgh bringing her reflections on the best recovery shows at the festival.
Writing about a show that has already been reviewed by dozens of critics, received numerous awards and doesn’t need an introduction is a challenging task. Reviewing ‘Trainspotting Live’ as someone who grew up with the movie in 90s Russia feels like deconstructing an icon. Yet looking at this acclaimed piece of theatre through the lens of recovery gives me solid grounds for reflection.
‘Trainspotting Live’ is adapted from Irvine Welsh’s novel of the same name. The story is based on Welsh’s memories of the Edinburgh youth culture and the drug scene of the 80s. It was staged by Harry Gibson in 1994, which in turn inspired Danny Boyle’s 1996 film. Trainspotting is now considered a cult film of the 90s – its cinematography and use of music inspired a generation of filmmakers.
Like the book, ‘Trainspotting Live’ covers themes of heroin abuse, violence, baby death, and HIV, among others. It is intense, and the live play, staged in a purpose-built tunnel, grasps that intensity.
The audience is seated in this tunnel with actors walking in front of them, behind them and nearly through them. They flash their body parts, splash liquids from the dirtiest toilet in Scotland, and call you ‘cunt’, so you are fully immersed in the characters’ world. It feels dangerous, and although the audience is mostly laughing in the first part of the show, it is nervous laughter. I was getting a stress response from my body and repeated many times to myself ‘Thank God they’re sober, and I’m in theatre’.
Maybe one of the reasons why Irvine Welsh has said this is the best way to experience Trainspotting is because it is raw and honest. There’s nothing romantic about heroin addiction – I say this as someone whose family lost someone to heroin addiction. The show manages to deliver that message.
To some extent, I wish this idea was stressed more in the publicity surrounding ‘Trainspotting Live’. While for much of the world, the heroin epidemic might be a long-forgotten relic of the 1980s, it remains a haunting present for the country where the action takes place. Scotland has the highest rate of drug-related deaths in Europe, with the number of fatalities in 2021 ‘4.6 times as many deaths compared with 2000’. The majority of people dying from ‘drug misuse’ are men in their late 30s and 40s. These are people who are like me, the “Trainspotting generation’, and have been struggling with addiction since their youth. At the same time, there is an increase in deaths among women and harm among younger people under 25.
This isn’t to be moralising – that never helped anyone to overcome addiction. But putting the show into context and understanding that this is the current reality of Scotland, not something left behind, could attract public attention and potentially, bring fresh ideas and energy into addressing the problem.
‘Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had, multiply it by a thousand, and you’re still fucking miles off the pace’, says Renton, describing the effect of heroin. ‘Men and women drink essentially because they like the affect produced by alcohol. The sensation is so elusive that, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false’, says Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.
‘Choosing life’ over that sensation is not easy, especially a life in poverty. In Renton’s famous monologue, he sardonically lists the goals of a capitalistic society. Choosing this kind of life when that same society has thrown you into poverty, is not only uninspirational but also hardly attainable.
Yet, one of the rare things that can bring us closer to that sensation is, surprisingly, making art. The ‘Trainspotting Live’ team has the potential both to attract attention to the problem and potentially address it through creative community engagement.
‘Trainspotting Live’ runs at Pleasance at EICC till August, 27th.
For more information visit Trainspotting Live.
“My Edinburgh Festival blog posts are not quite reviews but rather reflections. The reason for this is I look at the show from at least two perspectives: that of theatre, both as a practitioner and a reviewer, and that of recovery, both as a writer for Performing Recovery and a person in recovery. I hope it will provide fresh insights into the work. There are many acclaimed theatre critics out there who have already praised this work. Mine is a recovery angle that allows me to find the moments that might have been missed otherwise.”