Thursday, July 20, 2006

Irvine Welsh's Babylon Heights

Whin yae gayta emiel fray Irvine Welsh, yey cane-da exspake it tae be written in the phonetic code his characters speak in Trainspotting and his other writings conducted through the Scottish demotic.

But, on the contrary, in text communication from Welsh (who now lives in Dublin), thoughts are clear, polite. And perfectly spelled for the most part (let them that is without sin in that department chuck the first stun!)

As it happens, there are no remnants of Welsh’s famous idiosyncratic spelling in Babylon Heights, his latest play. Hardly surprising either, since it is set in 1930s Hollywood, among a milieu of actors-of-small-stature employed to play Munchkins in the MGM film version of The Wizard of Oz.

Y’wha? How did the bard of Leith come to be writing on such a subject? Well, for one thing, he was living on the West Coast of the US, in San Francisco, where Babylon Heights was first produced (although the actors of Dublin’s Attic Studio regularly get big ups from Welsh for their workshopping of the play.)

But more importantly, perhaps, the writer has also maintained a lifelong interest in the film and the great tomes of urban legend and rumour that surrounded the 1939 production.

“[I’ve] Loved it since I was a kid. The film is irresistible,” types Welsh. “I think the cultural myths that something generates is as important as the thing itself.”

Some of the most intriguing of those myths surround the cast of small people who played the little people of Oz. But as much as he was attracted by the stories of Munchkin madness (their segregated hotel was said to be a party central of some renown, even by pre-war Hollywood standards) there were other elements that intrigued Welsh and his co-writer, Bradford-born, Dead Cavanagh.

“It seemed a strong story and ripe with potential for dramatic conflict,” says Welsh. “This was in 30's America where everybody was struggling, and it must have been even worse with the size disability.”

Prejudice against anybody without a standard body type was rife and the actors playing the muchkins got the full brunt of America’s casual discrimination.

“They were isolated from the other performers and paid less than Toto the dog,” says Welsh. “Things have improved, but the way small people are portrayed in the media as something to laugh at…look at Mini-Me in Austin Powers…shows there's still a lot to be done.”

Oddly, despite Welsh’s suggestions that one of the themes of his play is prejudice, news stories began appearing recently suggesting that small people’s groups objected to the play.

Were they perhaps objecting to the fact that the small people in Babylon Heights are not played by small actors (and instead, the script calls for everything in the set to be created three times its usual size)?

“I think the 'objections' are set-ups by the British newspapers. If you phone somebody up with loaded questions, they're going to give you the quotes you want.”

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