Dan Gordon Prepares for Blackbird
A challenging play about the 'relationship' between a man and a girl at the Lyric Theatre
'Have you just been researching on the internet beforehand?' a puckish Dan Gordon asks on being bombarded with salient facts about Blackbird, the new Prime Cut play he’s currently rehearsing at the Lyric Theatre.
But anybody with a passing interest in contemporary drama will have been aware of the furore that Blackbird (written by the aptly named David Harrower) generated on its Edinburgh debut and transfer to the West End some six years back.
It looks at the aftermath of a ‘relationship’ between a 12 year old girl and 40 year old man, with a dispassionate, objective and unblinking eye.
For those who haven’t researched online, the drama of Blackbird is set some 15 years after this assignation ended, where nice, even likeable, Ray has paid his dues to society and moved on with his life. He’s settled down and has a family, whereas Una’s life has been irrevocably shattered by the experience. She tracks him down and confronts him at work.
The most unsettling thing for some audience members and critics was the swathe of ambivalent grey that enveloped the play. In place of a simple monochrome morality, Blackbird refused to judge, condemn or even offer redemption or closure.
The business of life – the passions, the regrets, the resentments and the broken hearts – were played out in place of the reassuringly cardboard equation of victim/perpetrator. It was, and is, uncompromising, often uncomfortable viewing.
There’s no prizes for guessing which character Gordon plays, but there might be a gold star for anybody who predicted that the affable actor better known for perhaps less morally complex character compositions would take on the role of Ray at all.
'I was intrigued because I think that the character is the complete opposite of me,' he admits. 'As a father, I found it extremely difficult to approach Ray and what he’d done. But at the same time, I love that the play is non-judgemental. It doesn’t tell you what to think about Ray.
'You don’t necessarily see his past actions as front and centre in his character, which I think is very interesting. He’s a real person who does kind things and it’s important that the audience aren’t coloured by his past from the off.'
Gordon draws parallels with his outreach work with Prison Arts, where he says he makes a point of 'not knowing what these guys inside have done'. He adds: 'I don’t want to know as it will immediately change how I react to an individual.'
Indeed, it’s the very ambiguity of the couple’s former relationship that Gordon sees as absolutely pivotal to the power of Blackbird. The former Red Hand Luke seems to be relishing the rehearsals with his young co-star, Lisa Hogg and director Emma Jordan, particularly for that difficult ambiguity and the queasy see-saw sentiment that pervades Harrower's writing.
Dealing with the great tabloid shibboleth of underage sex and sexuality without a corresponding 'red top' type denouement will perhaps exercise the more morally intractable, but Gordon believes Northern Irish audiences are mature enough to consume a play that simply beholds, rather than berates, the characters.
'I think that we’re definitely grown-up enough for this kind of production. Northern Ireland audiences are very up for good, challenging theatre that leaves you thinking. Yes, it’s euphemistic at times, but that’s key. When you examine the role of the victim and of the perpetrator in life, as we know, it isn’t always black and white.
'Blackbird does what all great theatre does in that it holds up this subject and audiences can see themselves there, experience empathy and draw parallels, perhaps not directly, but in a personal way.'
Gordon is full of praise for director Emma Jordan and Prime Cut. 'As a mother and an actor herself, Emma has been wonderfully sure in her direction. She brings out the – there’s that word again – empathy in the characters and the play.
'It’s great to be involved with Prime Cut, who seem to often visit this kind of uncomfortable ground between two people. It’s been a great process and I’d actually liken it to Beckett or Pinter at times, in the sense of the outside world encroaching on these characters seemingly locked in a moment.'
It’s shaping up to be a busy autumn for Gordon. Following the dark, discomfiting subtlety of Blackbird comes his much travelled and very personal exploration of the legacy of the Shipyards. The Boat Factory gets a headlining run at the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen’s following a couple of years traversing the non-euphemistic ‘regions’.
'The Festival run of The Boat Factory is me going "Hello World’!" I’ve been road testing it in communities across Northern Ireland and to me, this run is like the grand premiere. It’s been done with very little money, but we’re here at last. I’m thrilled. It’s lovely and appropriate that the likes of Titanic Foundation were instrumental in helping us get this off the ground.'
Before that though, there’s the awkward song of Blackbird to be sung. Sensationalists and simpletons reading the Prime Cut website blurb might be tempted into using the dreaded ‘p’ word in association with the play, but the actor is having none of it.
'Paedophile? I hate the use of that word. This is a relationship! No matter how uncomfortable that may be. I’m not even sure about the marketing material using the word relationship to be honest. Audiences should go in without pre-conceptions, thinking "what’s their relationship? Is it his daughter, or what?" The surprise and shock should eventually kick in. It’s ostensibly normal people doing these things after all.'
The final words from Gordon on Blackbird perhaps illustrate the dual discomfit and confection of the play best of all: 'We love soaps because they have a beginning, a middle and an end, it’s like chewing gum for the eyes, as the expression goes. Well, this show is like a gobstopper for the eyes.'
Blackbird runs at the Lyric Theatre from September 8 - 18.