Kill Johnny Glendenning - A Big Bowl of Ice cream

Journalist David Pollock talked to writer DC Jackson about his violent, comical new play Kill Johnny Glendenning, a co-production between Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh and Citizens Theatre.

Kill Johnny Glendenning, on at the Citizens Theatre,
Wed 22 Oct - Sat 8 Nov

“A big bowl of ice cream,” is how playwright DC Jackson describes Kill Johnny Glendenning, his first original commission for the Royal Lyceum following his successful adaptation of Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro in 2012. “Commissioning theatres generally want to know the nutritional content rather than the roughage aspects of the plays they produce,” he tries to elaborate with a laugh. “This is a bowl of Coco Pops and they like to see muesli. It deals with the sort of themes I wouldn’t expect a big illustrious theatre like the Lyceum to normally be involved with.”
Josh Whitelaw and David Ireland. Photo by Robbie Jack

He’s talking about the fact that Kill Johnny Glendenning, a co-production with the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, is a gangster thriller straight out of Glasgow’s No Mean City underbelly, a face-off which pits shady Glaswegian businessman Andrew MacPherson against ageing Ulster gunman Johnny ‘The Bastard’ Glendenning. On the surface it’s a straight-up crime thriller, a piece which Jackson started writing two years ago without a commission, because he believed it might never see the light of day anyway. That’s because it has a large cast and many costly special effects, and he believes he does his best work without the pressures of a commissioned deadline to adhere to.

Yet even in creating a Scots crime thriller, Jackson – a Fringe First winner for his play My Romantic History and one of the writers of Channel 4’s student comedy Fresh Meat since its second series earlier this year – has tapped into murky parts of the Scots psyche which might not cause the nation to look itself in the mirror any time soon.

“I think there’s an unsavoury element of ‘wha’s like us’ running through Scotland generally,” he says, “and it can be almost as unpleasant as that sense of American exceptionalism. I know we’re a small nation which makes it slightly more palatable but, particularly during the Independence Referendum campaigns, it’s there in a lot of the things people say. “Scottish people are like ‘X’”. Well what you’ve described there are ordinary human characteristics, they’re not defined as being uniquely Scottish.

“There’s a spin-off from that,” he continues, “which is a kind of moist-eyed celebration of gangsters and gangsterism on the west coast of Scotland. You can see that in the way newspapers report crimes. I mean, I grew up in Ayrshire. It would be wrong to say that loyalist paramilitary stuff was a big part of my childhood in Stewarton, but at the same time a guy I was at school with went to prison for running guns. It was always about.”

Mark Thomson, artistic director of the Lyceum and director of this play, as he was on The Marriage of Figaro, relates an anecdote which Jackson told him. “Daniel used to work in a high street bookshop in Glasgow,” he says, “and he told me that apparently the most stolen books were the ones about paramilitaries and gangland violence, they had a real underground popularity.” Jackson clarifies that in his observations, the most stolen were books which related to the Irish Troubles, and after that books on true crime. “But you know,” he ponders, “I think a classification could easily be invented under which both of those could exist.”

It’s Thomson’s job to bring out the ‘nutritional content’ of Jackson’s script, and at one step removed from the original source material, he seems to have the greater grasp on where it embraces the themes it sets up. “The play looks at two main areas,” he says. “One is the broader presence of machismo and male violence in the Scottish culture, the other is the affirmation of those dangerous and violent worlds through money-making and publicity-seeking. This affirmation happens at all levels, whether you’re a young guy of 17 who’s looking to attain some status and power within your culture, or whether you’re a criminal celebrating yourself through the media and through book sales. One of the great joys and pleasures of the play is that it’s very intricate, with twists and turns throughout. If you ask what it’s about, the very simple answer is that it’s a set-up killing which goes wrong and backfires horribly, and a lot of people have to suffer because of that.”
Philip Cairns and Paul Samson. Photo by Robbie Jack

Over both its acts, Kill Johnny Glendenning takes us to two very different locations in Scotland. The first is a farm in deepest rural Ayrshire used for disposing of victims of gangland killings, the second a flat in the most genteel environs of Glasgow’s West End. “The first feels very primal and animalistic and violent,” says Thomson, “while the West End flat is completely different, it’s the artists quarter, a place of elegance. Here it’s about education, sophistication and legitimacy. They look like different universes, but they’re absolutely the same and Daniel draws them together in a way that shows they might not be so far apart.”

The link between MacPherson and Glendenning is Bruce Wilson, the tabloid journalist and author of MacPherson’s biography who puts about the story that Glendenning is a grass on behalf of the gangster in an effort to have him assassinated. He’s someone who straddles both worlds of crime and the media, says Thomson, and he enjoys how powerful the connection makes him feel within society. It’s this strange and voyeuristic compulsion to glorify the bad guy through the media which is close to the play’s core.

John Carnochan retired after 39 years with Strathclyde Police as a Detective Chief Superintendent in 2013, nine years after he jointly set up the Violence Reduction Unit in 2004, a successful initiative to tackle violent crime on a public health model, looking at it in terms of prevention rather than response. He’s something of an authority on violent crime and its causes in the west of Scotland.

“Young men with no father figure at home are influenced by internet, television, older brothers, estranged fathers, even mothers,” he says, “and there was always this sneaking respect for the ‘Glasgow businessman’, the gangster who everyone believes would be really successful if he turned to legitimate business. No they wouldn’t, they were in the main violent brutes. Yet even in the press there was this sneaking admiration for them. It’s an attitude which persists, look at the current Independence debate – it’s spoken about in terms of being in a war, of winning the fight. This martial, violent language is now everyday, and that attitude needs to shift.”

That such themes can be discussed in relation to this play is precisely why Thomson likes to have Jackson’s work on in his theatre. “This is the first play I’ve been perfectly open about describing as a comedy,” says the writer, “and I feel like I’m going to get my just desserts for that. Wait until opening night and it doesn’t raise a titter. It’s not violent to the point where it would offend anyone, although I can’t think of a play I’ve written which would be more appropriate to take a stag night to.”

His ability as a comic playwright with a popular touch is just what Thomson wants. “I really enjoyed what Daniel did on Marriage of Figaro,” he says, harking back to their first collaboration. “He has a natural ability to talk to large groups of people, to entertain them with a vibrancy of language and wit and energy that I want filling my stage. There are other writers whose work I enjoy as much, but perhaps I enjoy them more when I’m watching their plays with 60 other people in a small space. What I’m about here at the Lyceum is trying to encourage and release talent which wants to speak to 600 people at a time, and you have to have an appetite for that as a writer. Some writers don’t and that’s fine, but theatre needs that to remain a popular culture which can speak to large groups of society about big subjects.”

Another reason Thomson is so excited about the possibilities of this piece is the cast he’s assembled, partly because Andrew MacPherson will be played by Paul Samson, taking his first major role back on the Scottish stage following almost twelve years of regular television work on River City as barman Raymond Henderson. “His last play before he went into the show was also one of mine at the Brunton,” says the director. “It’s great being reminded how fine an actor he is, and to see an actor who’s been very successful and well-liked on television for a long-time rediscover what it’s like to be a stage actor again. It’s like watching somebody use muscles they’d forgotten about.”
Paul Samson, David Ireland. Photo by Robbie Jack

Playing opposite Samson in the title role will be Northern Irish actor David Ireland, also a playwright himself. “He comes from there so he’s tuned into the language brilliantly,” says Thomson, “and Daniel’s captured the cadences and rhythms of the Belfast accent brilliantly. The great challenge of all this is that because we’ve seen the subject looked at before in all sorts of genres, be it Tarantino, The Wire, The Godfather or Martin McDonagh, there are lots of references there. I guess what I’m trying to do with the actors is articulate those characters in a way which will feel fresh and new, we don’t want to create a tired parody of something else. At the same time we’re also investigating how you play an evil man, and what does that mean? Is there actually such a thing in an evil man?”

There’s a substantial ensemble cast at work alongside Samson and Ireland, but one other contributor whom Thomson singles out for praise is designer Michael Taylor. “He’s designed all the Arthur Millers we’ve done here,” he says, “and the reason he’s so brilliant for this play is that we need a detailed eye on the naturalism of it, we need to serve those things. If you’ve got a designer who doesn’t like doing a simple room in a flat, for example, that wouldn’t be right for this. It needs walls, it needs things lying about, it needs to be a real place.

“The characters are heightened and a bit fantastical, and housing them within a sort of careful realism helps bring them back down to earth. Michael will make it look brilliant even when you don’t know why it looks brilliant. Even when it’s just the way he’s placed some cups, there’s nothing conscious about it. He doesn’t push himself to the front of the stage, he seduces you into the world of the play in a much more interesting and tasteful way.”

Jackson himself is a fan of this realism, and he’s aware that even as the world he’s created is a character-driven but fairly high concept comedy thriller, that the people it describes are painfully real within modern Scotland. “If it didn’t have its roots in this reality it would just be a divertissimo,” says Thomson. “Of course it’s a comedy and one of its main jobs is to make you laugh, but it’s only funny because you recognise the kind of characters we’re laughing at. You recognise the young guy who’s a bit excitable; you recognise the weird farmer who’s dark and uncommunicative; you recognise the head honcho because you met him at school and never forgot him, or because he drinks at your local boozer. You’ve seen the media guy on television and at book launches. It’s rich in real life, Daniel’s talking about us and he’s talking about the way we treat male violence. If it isn’t rooted in anything then it isn’t true, and this is horribly, hilariously true.”

For the writer of the piece, who is currently writing a romantic comedy film with the Observer journalist Eva Wiseman for Warp Films and working on a new and very exciting theatre project, this reality strikes decidedly close to home. “Putting something like this onstage, you have to sit people down in a room and get them talking, which can change what you originally had in mind for the piece,” he says, “but in a lot of ways it makes it bigger and grander and more exciting. I love a naturalistic feel, which I understand makes me very old-fashioned.
David Ireland. Photo by Jobbie Jack

“There are blank-firing guns,” he continues with a dark laugh, “and it wouldn’t be unfair to say that one of the motivations for writing Kill Johnny Glendenning was so I can get a shot of a blank firing gun. I’ve realised an ambition. If I had the time and money I would happily stand and shoot blank-firing guns for a considerable amount of time.”

It sounds like it’s a piece about his own sense of masculinity as a Scot, as much as anything else. “Yeah, well I like that idea of Hunter S. Thompson,” he grins, “to just disappear to a ranch in the wilderness and fire guns. Of course, Scotland would be the perfect place to do that.”

By David Pollock

Kill Johnny Glendenning, on at the Citizens Theatre, Wed 22 Oct - Sat 8 Nov