A couple of weeks ago, I posted this response to Victoria McNulty’s one-woman, spoken-word theatre show, “Confessionals”. After the show, Victoria agreed to talk a bit more about the work and the thought behind it. (Photo credit: all photos by Andrew Tracey)
CB: Hi Victoria – thanks, again, for agreeing to do this. Just as a quick introduction, can I ask you to describe yourself, in three sentences or less?
VMcN: Working mum, lefty romantic. Like dogs more than humans. Is probably better at describing other people.
CB: You’ve said that ‘Confessionals’ was, “the most rewarding and challenging thing I’ve been involved in to date”. What were the challenges and what were the rewards?
VMcN: I think for me the biggest challenge was to be honest in the content. As a performer, there is sometimes a pressure to people-please. I was very mindful that “Confessionals”. doesn’t tell a story that will necessarily leave the audience feeling happy after hearing it. It was a challenge for me to accept that this is ok. I’m not a comedian or light entertainer. If people hate what you say but engage with the fact you have said it, then that’s a small triumph. But if I’m honest, I had a lot of anxiety about approaching the issue of gendered violence so openly, and how that would be received. I didn’t want to belittle experiences or glorify it in any way. For me, the rewards come from the connections that are made. The people who have approached me afterwards saying, ‘that’s my story/ my daughters story/ my mums story,’ make it worth while. To have been able to create something that makes anyone feel that personal connection is an amazing feeling.
CB: You’ve worked with Kat Hepburn and Kevin P. Gilday, the team from Sonnet Youth, to bring this version of “Confessionals” to the stage. What was that experience like and what did working with them add to what the audience saw on stage?
VMcN: Both Cat and Kevin are writers I admire in the Scottish spoken word scene, so, from the set-off, it was a positive experience for me. I’ve been lucky enough to have been a part of Sonnet Youth on a number of occasions, so being part of that new chapter was a privilege. What I hadn’t really thought of, thought, was that this was the first time they had approached a project like this as well, in a directorial role, and that enthusiasm they have really drove things forward. They work hard, consider everything, and were completely bold in enhancing what was already there. They encouraged me to be unafraid. If you told me, a year ago, that we would be projecting imagery of female fighters along with Bernadette Devlin interviews at the Roxy, I would have choked. And all of that boldness added to what the audience saw. They are excellent at seeing what needed to be done to bring the audience into the setting of the story, where to be shocking, where to be soft. They understood what mine and Abi Normal’s strengths were and how to maximise those.
CB: Can I ask about your writing process? You’ve said that you “basically . . . spewed 30 odd years of venom and frustration into a note book and it became a spoken word show” – but how much of what went into that notebook has ended up onstage? Have you added to it, taken stuff out? Was the narrative arc there from the beginning or was that something you added later?
VMcN: I wish I could tell you I had a sophisticated process in mind. Three small pieces in it were pieces I had been performing previously. Leyla Josephine talked to me about a narrative arc in passing, so I then realised there had to be a journey there. But, really, very little of it was changed. I certainly edited lines, to provide poetic strength, rhythm, whatever. But I didn’t overly think about the process. It wasn’t until performing it for the first time at The Visible Women festival that it even crossed my mind that I had written something that could be considered remotely decent.
CB: How do you ‘test’ your work out, before you perform it in front of an audience, so you can be sure it’ll land in the way you want it to? Do you edit your lines, to adjust the way they sound as well as what they say?
VMcN: So, “Confessionals”-wise, before doing it at Visible Women, we did a table reading and that was how it was road-tested. ‘Here is my 25 minute poem about domestic violence’ isn’t really open mic appropriate and, to be honest, little of the content works out of context. So, short of a couple of sets at Inn Deep or Fail Better, I didn’t test it. But it has been over a year in development, from that point until now, so I think I chopped and changed sub-consciously along the way. More generally, I would say testing work at open mics is the best way to really get a feel for audience reaction.
CB: It seems to me that performance poetry can impact on audiences, not always just because of the content, but because a good poet can generate emotion and energy in a room through their performance and use of rhythm and language. Do you think that some audiences leave spoken word gigs feeling a little unsure about exactly what was said but much clearer about how it made them feel? How important is it to you, that people should be clear about the content and messages in “Confessionals”?
VMcN: Yeah I do. As an audience member, I remember watching Liam McCormick perform and thinking, ‘I don’t have a clue what he said but it made me really uneasy and I fucking love it.’ But, although poetry and spoken word do bleed into one another, I see them as different in aim, as you said. I prefer to read poetry because I admire the craft of it, the form and structure and technique. Something like Sylvia Plath’s Metaphors, how 8 lines can accurately sum up the writers fears and emotions, it’s beautiful. But spoken word gives the writer a different tool-kit. How to use your voice, your body, the pause, to read the room. And that’s what I wanted to use in Confessionals, to make people feel how it feels. But yeah, it was really important to me, for people to know what was being said, because it’s a loaded story. That’s why having the opportunity to publish it with Speculative Books was so helpful. So an audience member could revisit the content again if they wanted to.
CB: There’s a line, right at the start, “the club spilled like smashed amphorae”, that made me want to ask about your use of language. On the one hand “Confessionals” is poetry which comes with its own pre-conceived baggage about what is and isn’t ‘poetic’ language. On the other, it’s an honest account of life in Glasgow, told in true-to-life voices and vernacular. How much of an effort was it for you (if any), to balance the two? Did you find yourself editing lines to be more or less ‘poetic’ (whatever you take that to mean)?
VMcN: To be honest, it wasn’t that much effort. If you sit in any working man’s pub in Glasgow on a Sunday afternoon, you hear poetic language. ‘Feel like a burst baw/ face like a slapped arse,’ or hearing footballers described as ‘Bambi on ice’ or a ‘bus turning in Sauchiehall Street’. That’s as effective as any simile or metaphor! So, for the character pieces, I said what would be said anyhow. And for the descriptive part, there’s that thing about spinning an epic yarn, that saga that’s engaging but ultimately pointless. Everyone I know has served a punter like that or has a family member like that. That uncle that takes 3 whole hours to tell you about the time he passed Billy McNeil in the street in minuscule, Joyce-like detail! I just kinda stole that.
CB: One thing I like a lot is the range of different characters and voices you deploy throughout “Confessionals” – “the Gambler”, the woman at the bar who appears like “a vision in peroxide”, the”hag in a purple Pac A Mac”. How easy or difficult did you find it to write credibly in this range of voices? And how important was it, that the poem should speak from a number of different points of view?
VMcN: I found it most difficult to portray the men to be honest. I don’t know what it’s like to be a man in that environment. How it feels to have these pressures, how they think. So I based them on things I had heard being said, or people I knew. But, yeah, it was very important to show all these view points. We see gendered violence as an act inflicted on a single victim by a single perpetrator. It’s not like that. There are factors that feed it, those who ignore it and so tacitly consent to it, people who don’t even understand it’s happening to them, people who don’t understand that they are acting in certain ways. I didn’t want to portray it as two dimensional. That’s a disservice.
CB: How much of the ‘real’ Victoria McNulty is there in “Confessionals”? Do you think its success rests on the audience accepting it as ‘your’ story, rather than ‘a story’ that you are telling? And what impact does that have on you as the performer of the work?
VMcN: To be honest, it’s all me. And the bits I didn’t experience have happened to my friends or family. And that’s really bloody sad. And yeah, I think the audience know that while they are watching it performed because it’s happened to them, their friends and their family too. And yeah, I do think it’s why it’s been received so well. But it also makes it quite a draining experience as a performer. I don’t plan to be performing “Confessionals” long term, cause I don’t want to revisit the content indefinitely.
CB: The ‘hard man’ archetype casts a long shadow over Scottish writing – from Johnnie Stark in “No Mean City” to Begbie in “Trainspotting” – and, in most cases, there’s a battered wife or partner in the background, trying to cope with the abuse that’s meted out to her. You’ve said that you, “wanted to write about domestic violence from a working class woman’s perspective as I feel that’s sometimes a conversation that is lacking”. Did you see this as a re-balancing, an attempt to bring the battered woman out of the shadows of these popular stories and give her a voice and a place in the foreground?
VMcN: I think one of the things that makes Begbie, for example, such a loved character, is because he’s real to Scottish culture. But he’s also multi-faceted. He’s an abusive fuck, who loves his son but either doesn’t know how to show it, or was systematically abused by his own Daddy. And, yeah, male characters are often done that justice. I started writing “Confessionals” around about the time of Loki’s Gaslight project and although that was a brave and powerful piece of work, it was another piece of work about how men feel as abusers. I wanted to portray the effects this abuse has on their partner and why women accept this or believe it to be ok. Because so many choose to leave when it’s already too late.
CB: For me, the most unsettling scenes in “Confessionals” come at the conclusion of Part 3, with the Barmaids own confessions and a series of abusive vignettes which end with the character’s repeated admission that, “I liked it”. How important was it for you, that there should be this element of (for want of a better word) complicity in the overall narrative?
VMcN: See, I’m glad you’ve asked that, because you’re not the first person to have seen that as an admission of complicity. And that wasn’t ever my intention. We live in a society where we are conditioned to believe that rough sex is good sex, aggression is passion, possession is true intensity. It’s all over our popular culture – from Blade Runner, to The NoteBook, to Friends. So yeah, maybe the first time these things occur, a women might like it, because it’s how she’s been told that true love is shown. Later in that section, the character goes on to say, “I was not born a victim”, because we don’t develop abused/abuser roles from birth. We create them, as a society, by continually perpetuating the myth that this is true. So, I suppose the complicity lies with society as a whole, not just the individual.
CB: “Confessionals” is very vividly and firmly fixed in terms of its location – but I was wondering how fixed it was in time. You’ve written for Common Space about the “pantomime” of gentrification in Glasgow’s East End, with twelve pound fish suppers being sold in the centre of the Barras Market Would you say that “Confessionals” describes the area in the present or the past? Where do you think these characters will be in, say, ten or twenty years time?
VMcN: Well, actually, when I started writing “Confessionals”, it was firmly set in the present but the Gallowgate has changed so much so quickly you’d think it was 20 odd years ago. One of the pubs I had in mind when writing it is now a Bourbon and BBQ bar. The change is so rapid. I don’t know where characters like that will be in 20 years time but the men in it would be dead statistically speaking! But, in all seriousness, that kind of working class pub culture is dying in the city centre. I’m not sure I see it existing there at all soon, but the characters will still exist, in schemes or front rooms, or bookies in outlying areas. Maybe areas like Parkhead or the Garngad will stay for a while, before rapid development claims them too.
CB: You’ve said that there will be more “Confessionals” shows to follow – but have you given any thought to what you want to do next? And how do you find the energy to create new work, when you’ve committed so much of yourself to writing and producing this piece?
VMcN: Next, I really want to make it through the Fringe and to Electric Fields with Neu Reekie!, then I want to walk my dog lots, go on adventures with my kid and hang out with my partner. A new piece will come when it comes cause – yeah, after “Confessionals”, I’m zapped. All work and no play makes for shit poetry at my end, so I’ll take it easy and see where that takes me for a while. After “Confessionals”, I want to put the same time and care into whatever is next.
CB: Thank you, for taking the time to engage so honestly and enthusiastically. – it’s been a real pleasure putting these pieces on “Confessionals” together.