Following up on our article back in December – preparations at The Tramway in Glasgow are well under way for GRIT: The Martyn Bennett Story.
To mark the official re-release by Real World of Martyn’s legendary GRIT album, Olivier Award winning theatre director Cora Bissett and her company – Pachamama, presented a short preview of the show, which opens on 3rd June. GRIT: The Martyn Bennett Story is a visually spectacular theatrical exploration of one of Scotland’s most innovative musical maverick visionaries, Martyn Bennett, who stormed the underground music scene in the 90s with his unique blend of Gaelic and world song with cutting edge dance music.
Directed by Cora Bissett and written by one of Scotland’s brightest writing talents, Kieran Hurley, GRIT brings together dance in the form of Cirque du Soleil Trapeze artist Andrew Watson and Canada’s renowned choreographer Dana Gringas; drama – with the part of Martyn himself played by Sandy Grierson, whose current portrayal of Ivor Cutler in The Beautiful Cosmos Of Ivor Cutler is, rightly, earning glowing reviews, and music, in the form of Martyn’s original, timeless recordings.
Despite the busy schedule, we were lucky enough to catch a few minutes with director Cora Bissett to ask her about the show, its inception and what it means to Cora and Pachamama Productions.
What first drew you to Martyn’s music, what was your first exposure to it?
I remember hearing it in the early nineties, when he first exploded onto the scene – with the dreadlocks and everything – on the whole Edinburgh circuit. I was in a band at the time and was very much aware of him. I didn’t actually see his gigs at the time, but I remember catching snippets and hearing the album and knowing a lot of people who were very influenced by it at the time….sometimes you come and go with music; I bought Bothy Culture and Hardland, and it wasn’t until recently that I revisited Grit. Something just sparked in me again. It’s just the life force coming through that album, it’s extraordinary, and you can see, when you look at those early samplings, that are quite naive in their own way – when he’s just sampling his beats and his bagpipes and there’s a beautiful simplicity about it. And then you see Grit and it’s this fusion – for me, it’s ‘you’ve worked out what you’re doing – you’ve brought all those elements together – strings, samples, songs’ for each song he’s thought ‘how am I going to paint this great big tapestry around it?’ It’s driven with this energy, and I guess it’s the energy of a man who knows life is hugely precious. And maybe that’s what’s speaking to me – I’m drawn to stories that grab life by the proverbial… and says ‘We’ve got to do something with this, guys’ – that kind of energy really speaks to me.
I know people have played his music, I know there’s a hard-core fan base that have re-created his music at Celtic Connections and things. So I don’t feel that he’s been forgotten about, but I think the story of Martyn as a human being, and what he achieved in his short life – no-one’s really told that as a drama. And I think, for a whole new generation… when I speak to people who are maybe in their twenties, most of them don’t know who Martyn Bennett is and I thought ‘That is a real shame, what can I do about that? I can tell his story’. That’s my job – I tell his story and it opens it up to a whole new generation of people. That was the motivating factor – let’s celebrate this guy. Especially as someone who so understood and cherished his own cultural heritage, but he was so outward looking. And I just feel that right now, where Scotland’s at, in this year… it’s not a political show, but what it’s saying is ‘You can look back and you can look forward at the same time,’ and Martyn was doing that through his music.
GRIT: The Martyn Bennett Story (Preview Clip) :
His music still has huge relevance – not least because he was years ahead of his time. For existing fans, there’s a tangible emotional attachment to the music. Hearing his music again in a big space – with all the excitement, all the dancing, is going to elicit an emotional response from lots of people, is that something that’s been on your mind?
Very much so – not only for the people who were closest to him, like Kirstin (Bennett), but I think you’re right.. for the people who come to see the show, so I hope they feel we’ve done justice to the music. Obviously, the show’s always going to be one person’s, or many people’s, interpretation of that music, but I think everybody who’s involved on the show is really into, really cares about this music. When the choreographer Dana Gringas came on board she just said ‘this is extraordinary stuff, I can’t wait to create dance with this’. So I think, yes, it will be emotional for everyone because we’re always going to interpret the music from a very instinctive and heartfelt place.
You have to tick a box on your contract for this show that says ‘Are you a hard-line Martyn Bennett Fan?’…that’s almost true!
In June the show moves to Mull, Martyn’s home, as the hub of the emerging GRIT festival to be staged there. Do you foresee any particular problems involved with staging the show on Mull?
Yes, that’s going to be a challenge, for sure, but it’s a challenge we’re preparing for right from the start. The main part of the set can be split into a smaller section for the stage on Mull. We can’t do the trapeze work on Mull because the ceiling isn’t high enough for the rig, so we’re going to replace that with a Chinese pole artist. The acrobatics take place on a ground-based pole – so you still get that same feeling of something very beautiful, a kind ascension – take off. The dance has to be scaled down a little too, but other than that, it’ll be pretty much the same show – just a more intimate version.
The show’s part of the cultural celebrations for the Commonwealth Games – has that always been part of the plan?
Yes, always. When I had the seed of the idea, being a small, independent company, we had think about where we were going to get funding for this. So as we were starting to look around for funding – serendipitously – the Commonwealth Fund was launched and they were keen to support work that celebrates Scottish culture but from a very internationalist viewpoint. I can’t think of anything more apt! They were very keen that we connect with Commonwealth partners, and with Martyn having the dual heritage, being born in Canada, I just thought – this is perfect. I worked with Canadian partners to reflect his dual heritage, also there’s a big Gaelic speaking population in Canada and a very spiritual bond between the two countries – and so it just started to feel so right. I was confident that I’d be able to get the funding for this.
And that fits in really well with Pachamama’s history of bringing together different art forms; expanding that philosophy in a work where not only different art forms (theatre, dance, music) combine, but also different cultures.
Absolutely – that’s what we’re all about. Just really not seeing the boundaries… ‘can we stick a trapeze in the middle of a drama’? Yeah! Why not? Let’s try it!
Did the project involve a lot of collaboration with The Martyn Bennett Trust?
Very much so. B.J. Stewart- the main founder of trust and Martyn’s best mate, has been involved from day one. He was involved in the casting process for Martyn Bennett – we interviewed about forty different people for the role before we came back to the legendary Sandy Grierson. Originally I wasn’t sure about casting Sandy because I knew he would be portraying Ivor Cutler at around the same time and timing for rehearsals could be difficult. But, actually, I went around the country and came back to Sandy because he’s the best man for the gig.
With Sandy Grierson’s flourishing habit of playing Scottish cultural icons, enthralling choreography, and Cora Bissett’s own limitless and engaging enthusiasm GRIT promises to be every bit as exciting as the build-up suggests. A fitting tribute in which fans, old and new, of Martyn’s music can immerse themselves.
Grit : The Martyn Bennett Story, is at Glasgow’s Tramway from 3-7 June (with previews on 30/31 May) and Druimfin, Mull from 20-22 June.
Wed 4 June: Post show talk with the cast, Cora Bissett, writer Kieran Hurley and friends of Martyn. Fri 6 June: Pre-show in Gaelic and English: Margaret Bennett, mother of Martyn Bennett (esteemed singer/folklorist/writer), in conversation with Timothy Neat (film-maker/biographer of Hamish Henderson)
The Real World Gold reissue of Grit was released on Monday 19th and features two bonus tracks: Martyn’s soaring remix of Peter Gabriel’s ‘Sky Blue’, Martyn’s last recorded work; and ‘Mackay’s Memoirs’ – written to commemorate the Broughton High School Centenary, and in honour of the late Dr Kenneth A Mackay of Badenoch. It was performed at the opening ceremony of the New Scottish Parliament.
Interview by: Neil McFadyen