EDINBURGH 2023: Alan Bissett Guest Blog

Alan Bissett on bringing the Moira trilogy to Edinburgh

By: Aug. 03, 2023
Edinburgh Festival
EDINBURGH 2023: Alan Bissett Guest Blog
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I’ve had nine Edinburgh Fringe runs now and loved every second of them.  You take your chances in front of an audience that has literally thousands of other shows they could be watching, which means your script better be tight, you’d better be well-rehearsed and you’d better not forget your lines (as I did onstage in front of four hundred people, having to be rescued by Elaine C Smith).

I’ve stripped down to my pants and asked the audience to vote on whether I should go all the way (in 2013’s Ban This Filth, although not once did they ever vote for me to lose my keks).  I’ve pretended to be a black widow spider, a tarantula, a recluse spider, and a hawk wasp all in one show (2012’s The Red Hourglass), and I’ve strode the stage as the Satanic character from Scottish folklore, Black Donald, in a satire about the independence referendum of 2014 (The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant, the aforementioned show in which I forgot my lines).  But none of these have endured like the character from my very first ever Fringe show in 2009: Falkirk’s hardest woman, Moira Bell.

The Moira Monologues happened by accident.  Back then I was known as a novelist, having never attempted theatre before, and one Monday afternoon found myself trying to write a short-story about a woman on a housing scheme berating her neighbour about the behaviour of her dog.  When my flatmate returned home from work I read her the story, acting it out, to emphasise its working-class Scots dialect.  She very much enjoyed it but told me that she believed it to be a stage piece.  She then set me a challenge: to write a new instalment every day and to read each to her when she got in from work.

Challenge accepted!  By the end of the week, I had a one-hour series of monologues from Moira’s perspective, but no-one to perform them.  Hiring an actress would cost money, and besides…there was something at the back of my mind telling me that the ideal performer for Moira was a bit closer to home.  After all, my flatmate has responded to me acting it out myself each night, and I liked the jeopardy of throwing myself into the role completely, not just as a writer but as a performer.  Moira had been based on the women in my family growing up – my sister, my gran, my aunties, my cousins – and I knew their mannerisms, their body language, their facial expressions when they told a story.  Perhaps there would be an attraction on the part of the audience to a show in which a man performs as a woman but isn’t in drag: a high-wire act that that might intrigue but also make it stand out from all other shows at the Fringe.

And so, myself and director Sacha Kyle hired a rehearsal room in which to bring Moira Bell to life, deciding on a simple, neutral costume of a black top and skinny jeans, with the only concession towards femininity being a pair of high-heels.  The set would be equally stripped down: a chair, a table, a mop and bucket (Moira is a cleaner in the local school).  Everything would be in the script, the direction, and the performance.  Everything would stand or fall on how convincingly I could bring this woman to life.  And Moira’s stories about her neighbour’s dog, about her cheating ex-boyfriend, about an awkward date she goes on, about the dismal Scotland football match she watches – all of it narrated to her eternally-patient BFF (and audience stand-in) Babs – unfolded before a Fringe audience in 2009, in the incongruous setting of the National Library of Scotland, for the first time.

Much to my surprise, the response was ecstatic.  Punters took to Moira straight-away and the reviews were glowing.  What I found was that it didn’t matter what the background of any given audience-member was – male, female, young, old, working-class, middle-class, radical, conservative, experienced theatre-goer or theatre-sceptic – everyone found something in Moira that they could relate to.  She very quickly became someone onto whom the audience could project their own hopes and fears, alienating no-one in the process.

A writer usually happens only upon one of these characters in their career, if they are lucky, and Moira became mine.

I think The Moira Monologues connected with people for two main reasons: characters like her – working-class women – are not often encountered on the stage, and yet they represent a huge amount of people in Scotland, and beyond.  Plus, Moira says the unsayable, not really caring a damn what anyone, including the audience, thinks of her.  We tend to admire fictional characters who say and do the things we wish we could.

The Moira Monologues was followed in 2017 by More Moira Monologues – which won a Fringe First and was shortlisted for Best New Play at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland – and 2022’s Moira in Lockdown, which answered the question I was often asked during the pandemic: ‘Ooh, I wonder how Moira’s handling this…?’

Each time, audiences and critics responded in the same joyous manner as they had to the first one.  As such, I have found myself with an accidental trilogy on my hands.  While I took care to write each instalment of the Monologues so that you don’t have to have seen any of the others to make sense of them, nonetheless, there is a vague story mapped out in Moira’s journey from a single mother in her late thirties in 2009, with two teenage sons at home, to a grandmother stuck at home alone in her early fifties in 2022.  Men, her mother, her sons, and pets have come and gone, but Babs – the one constant in her whole life – remains, making The Moira Trilogy a testament to enduring female friendships as much as it is to working-class women.

It's going to be a challenge for me to perform three shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, instead of just one, but to be honest, those high-heeled boots do most of the work.

The Moira Monologues is on at The Stand New Town Theatre on August 4th and 7th 3.10pm.

https://www.thestand.co.uk/fringe/1682/the-moira-monologues-alan-bissett

More Moira Monologues is on at The Stand New Town Theatre on August 5th and 8th 3.10pm

https://www.thestand.co.uk/fringe/1683/the-moira-monologues-2-more-moira-alan-bissett

Moira in Lockdown is on at The Stand New Town Theatre on August 6th and 9th 3.10pm

https://www.thestand.co.uk/fringe/1684/the-moira-monologues-3-moira-in-lockdown-alan-bissett

Photo credit: Stephanie Gibson




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