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It is about identity … we call Scotland a mongrel nation

It's a cosy scene in the Glasgow-based Glue Factory complex, where Kieran Hurley is rehearsing Rantin', the writer/performer's ambitious but still intimate look at Scotland's assorted peoples.

story IN SONG:  From left, Drew Wright, Gav Prentice, Kieran Hurley and Julia Taudevin are working together on the piece that notes divisions in society.
story IN SONG: From left, Drew Wright, Gav Prentice, Kieran Hurley and Julia Taudevin are working together on the piece that notes divisions in society.

There are lamps and tables on the rug of a living-room set-up lined with piles of books and records as assorted characters pass through, playing out their stories and looking for a place to call their own.

The writer of rave generation meditation Beats, and the 2011 London riots based Chalk Farm is himself onstage alongside that play's co-writer, playwright/performer Julia Taudevin.

Also on board are nouveau folk musicians and singer/song-writers Drew Wright, aka Wounded Knee, and Over The Wall's Gav Prentice, who tell other stories through songs that are integral to the assorted narratives.

Ranging from a drunk lying face down on the floor to a tartan-obsessed man on a plane, the stories the Rantin' quartet tell could be about anyone, anywhere, right now. Yet, as Hurley's show - originally seen as part of the National Theatre of Scotland's Auteurs season of works in progress at the Arches' Behaviour festival - begins a national tour of one-night stands in some of the country's less sung towns, a sense of place is integral to the work.

"I'd noticed that I'd been using music a lot in my work," Hurley says of the roots of Rantin'.

"In my show, Hitch, there was originally a band. In Beats it was much more explicit, with a DJ onstage. So I was interested in how I might push that further, using live music in relation to story-telling, and in relation to creating a sense of community, though I didn't want to make a musical as such."

Hurley started working first with Prentice, with whom he found much common ground.

"We noticed a lot of overlap between each other's work," Hurley says. "Gav's got an album called The Invisible Hand, which is really about ideas to do with the loss of practices and communities of solidarity in working class post-industrial Scotland, which is the same stuff that Beats is about.

"Then we started playing around with what became Rantin', making it an exploration of Scotland. 7:84's The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black Black Oil became a reference point, and I started thinking of Rantin' as a kind of ceilidh play, and what a 21st century politicised ceilidh play would look like."

At this point, Tauvedin and Wright became involved in what gradually took shape as Rantin'.

"In many ways it's about Scottish identity," Hurley says, "and about destabilising the idea that there could be one singular or central concept of any national identity. We are calling Scotland a mongrel nation in the play, which the ceilidh play form fits in quite well with.

"There are lots of different fragments, which glance off each other in ways that are slightly conflicting. There's a destabilised sense of there being any singular narrative, and that works quite well for exploring plurality, which is a big theme in the show.

"But the show's also about the other lines that divide us that aren't necessarily lines of nationhood or border, but are lines of class and economics. Despite the conceit of the show being about Scotland, and imagining a map of Scotland at the beginning of the show, those dividing lines of class and economics are probably more important.

"They are the lines that really divide people in the picture of Scotland that we attempt to draw. The word 'nationalism' is difficult for a lot of us on the left, who intuitively aren't natural bedfellows with that."

Beyond its politics, Rantin' sounds like a neat sleight of hand, whereby something radical is presented in a form that is reassuringly old-fashioned.

"In many ways it's just a variety show," Hurley says. "There are songs, there are stories, there are sketches, there are scenes. It's no more complicated than that.

"But the dramatic arc, if there is one, comes out of the stories that we keep returning to.

"There are three of them we return to more than once, as well as four more stand-alone set-piece.

"There are a lot of one-sentence stories in-between as well, that try and give a continual idea of multiplicity.

"The idea is that all these stories are playing out across Scotland in real time as we sit in this theatre, and which we zoom in and out of to say what is happening.

"It's an attempt to present a fragmented portrait of a nation - it's obviously impossible, to paint anything like a complete picture. That fragmented nature of it, the incompleteness of it, and the fact that what it's dealing with is too big to put into a theatre show becomes part of what the show's about."

One thing Rantin' most definitely isn't is a polemic. Nor, despite its appearance in 2014, is it a piece of propaganda for the forthcoming independence referendum in September.

This is something Hurley can't stress strongly enough.

"All of us who have made the show feel really strongly that Rantin' is a piece that will have as much to say about Scotland in 2015 as it does now," he says, "regardless of which way the vote goes. We've all got our different personal voting intentions, but it's important that the show's not about the referendum, and that the show is about Scotland, but isn't framed by that question.

"However, it's also important to us that the show is happening around the time of the referendum, because even though the referendum is one binary question, I think it's a binary question that creates a rupture in the narrative of how we think about ourselves, and which opens up a whole bunch of space to ask ourselves some questions that feel quite urgent.

"The amazing thing is, is that context is happening for everyone anyway, so we don't have to underline the questions that the referendum is asking, because they are going to be so present in the room anyway."

Beyond the referendum, then, Hurley recognises only too well how close Rantin' is thematically to his previous shows.

"They are all stories about atomised individuals who are structurally distant from each other and alienated from each other in an individualistic society," he says, "and who have a binding need for some sense of community and love.

"It's about trying to understand that you are part of something in a world where we feel increasingly atomised from each other."

Rantin' tours this week to Cove Burgh Hall, tonight; Kilmardinny Arts Centre, Bearsden, tomorrow; Carmichael Hall, Eastwood, Friday; Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, Saturday. For further tour dates see www.nationaltheatrescotland.com.

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