Guest Blog: Kieran Hurley On Cultural Access and MOUTHPIECE
In many ways, Mouthpiece is a play which is distinctly about Edinburgh, where I was born and lived until I was 18. From the cafes of the New Town, through the city's art galleries, to high up on Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags from where you can see the whole city, including the housing estates otherwise invisible to tourist, the geography of the city lives large in the world of the play, and I hope that there is a real sense of place running through it.
There's a big part of Edinburgh's self-identity that is about high culture. Literature, UNESCO heritage status, art and festivals that are predominantly the preserve of the middle classes. It has a reputation across the rest of Scotland as being a place full of English people, or at least people that sound it, and even Trainspotting's Mark Renton describes the bars of Rose Street as places frequented entirely by "arseholes, wankers, and tourists."
But beyond the postcard image, the city - like any city the world over - is made up predominantly of ordinary working-class people, not all of whom feel a huge amount of ownership over Edinburgh's lauded cultural institutions. And it's across these fault lines over class and culture that the play attempts to sit.
Libby is a lonely disillusioned ex-playwright who has returned home to Edinburgh in her middle age to live in her mum's spare room, still calling herself a writer even though she hasn't written a word in years. Declan is a teenage boy who is also an artist, though he'd never even think of calling himself that. He does drawings as a means of processing the trauma of a collapsing home environment and the stresses of growing up in poverty.
They meet and form a kind of unlikely friendship. She introduces him to the city's cultural offerings, insisting they are his as much as anyone's, and inspiring in him the confidence to call himself a proper artist. He in turn awakens in her the desire to write again, and she begins to write his story.
And that's where things slowly begin to get messy for them, as they're forced to navigate the power dynamics of who is and who isn't afforded the privilege to speak and be heard in our culture, and Declan is faced with the inherent violence of being dependent on someone else to speak your truth.
I can't say much more than that because of spoilers, but I do want to say that the play is not trying to argue that writers shouldn't imagine beyond their own lived experience. It's not trying "argue" anything insofar as it's a story and not an essay. But it is trying to open up a conversation about which voices are given the privilege of access to tell stories and shape culture at the exclusion of others.
And - of course - this is not a problem specific to Edinburgh in any way. It is endemic. Addressing it isn't just a matter of justice, or fairness, or equity - it's actually about genuinely valuing culture. Not just the cultural expression of a limited and narrow demographic, but the cultural expression of everyone. When any part of that is silenced or excluded it's a loss to us all, and we're diminished by it.
For all this, there's a line in Mouthpiece where someone says of the play Libby is writing "it's a love story really though, isn't it?", and I kind of think that's true of Mouthpiece too. It's a story about two people, who genuinely do answer something meaningful for each other and complete each other in some way - until the inherent power dynamics in the relationship pull it apart. It's not a political or cultural treatise, but a story about two lost people, and I hope it's funny, and sad, and humane in all the ways that it should be.
Photo credit: Roberto Ricciuti