Life Is Shite

Playing h-o-r-s-e: The cast of 'Trainspotting" gets a fix of looking gritty
Theatre Pro Rata

It wasn't my intention to conduct any kind of social experiment. But ever since I started carrying around a copy of Irvine Welsh's 1993 novel Trainspotting in anticipation of Theatre Pro Rata's theatrical adaptation, I keep eliciting the same reaction from people I barely know. An uncountable number of males between the ages of 18 and 30 will hone in on the cover and greet me with the words, "AWESOME book, man!"

And indeed, Welsh's episodic account of the triumphs and torments of heroin addiction is a funhouse of lost boys angst and showy bravado. "We realize we're all going to die without really finding out the answers, " says protagonist Mark, or, in appropriate dialect, "We're aw gonnae die." But a bit of moral aimlessness may not matter much, considering how invigorating the novel's anti-authority attitude sounds on the tongues of Generation X-ers. Welsh was heralded for accurately portraying Edinburgh slum life with gritty realism, but the producers of the 1996 film must have had some clue that the novel's universal pop sensibility, with a little help from Ewan McGregor, would turn grit into gold.

Hopelessness can seem AWESOME when accompanied by the right soundtrack. The conviction that non-users just don't get it and "life is shite" gives Mark and his friends a healthy dose of sardonic arrogance even as they acknowledge the pathetic state of their dependencies. Although the film paid as much attention to heroin's destructive consequences as its emotional highs, it faced accusations of glamorizing drug use, an inevitable debate for a piece filled with clever aesthetics. Dazzling visual stunts turned the depths of a filthy toilet into a shimmering ocean and magically opened floorboards to receive a blissfully stoned junkie.

In taking on a lesser-known 1995 adaptation of Welsh's book, Theatre Pro Rata has restored the darkness that occasionally disappears in those slick, heady images. Featuring a bare stage with only a mattress, a chair, and a few props, the production offers no close-ups of injections, no dance-club interiors, no Edinburgh skyline. Stripped of such devices, Harry Gibson's script returns the emphasis from the outside world to the interior ruminations of the characters.

Most of the time, the simplicity of this approach is effective. Gibson and Pro Rata are well aware that the audience's imagination can produce more lurid images of the novel's excretory, sexual, and medical mishaps than any literal reenactment. When a character is saddled with the indignity of soiled sheets after crashing with his girlfriend's parents, the impact comes not from visual shock value, as in the film, but instead from empathy. When he reconstructs the incident from memory, it soon becomes apparent that humiliation in the first person is far more mortifying than mere observation.

Trainspotting is particularly entertaining when it indulges in theatricality. When Mark (Joe Papke) reenacts his estranged brother's funeral, he portrays all his dysfunctional relatives, a scene that is as strangely moving as it is informative about the character. While the performance refrains from wall-to-wall music, it does include several cleverly timed numbers, including the theme song from Julia Child's Cooking with the Master Chefs.

Having first made its first sold-out appearances at the Minnesota Fringe Festival, Pro Rata's production is a welcome introduction to Welsh's manic style for those still unfamiliar with the author. Nonetheless, comprehending the action can be a formidable task whenever dialogue replaces narration. The thick accents ("Ah've goat the hireys!") may serve the atmosphere well, but it is often tricky to differentiate between principal characters that are played by the same actor. This is not helped by the fact that everyone in Gibson's script flickers transiently in and out of the action, usually acting as foils for Mark. Fellow junkies like Sick Boy, Johnny, and Alison eagerly carry the torch of dark humor, but just as often their sketchy characters are left holding the dime bag.

Fans of the movie may be disappointed--or relieved--that this version leaves the ending ambiguous, without a hopeful techno beat promising our hero a rosy future. Absent an obvious denouement, the show relies on its cast to provide a sense of momentum. Ultimately, this Trainspotting is a character study of an addict who is oddly sympathetic, even when introducing a sober friend to heroin or propositioning his recently widowed sister-in-law. With his vulnerability and resigned sense of bewilderment, Theatre Pro Rata's leading junkie is a hard man to refuse.

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