Much like heroin, youth is an opiate by which we convince ourselves that the worlds we create in our minds are the same ones that we actually live in. It is not until we grow older, out of youth, that we realize they really were. A young man, Mark, rises from a ‘strange bed,’ waking from his dreams inexplicably covered in his own filth, asking himself one question.
“How did I get here?”
Mark is a heroin addict and more than willing to lead us, his audience, any audience, to the train station where he believes his suspicions can be confirmed. How reliable they are is a different matter.
“You don’t know for sure if this is all in his head or not,” says Justin Zachary, Mark in the play.
And while Mark tells his stories, very often it is one of his friends (another member of the cast) who acts them out. His words are cleverly written and brilliant to witness, but it is not with humor that we listen; we follow him with something infinitely more terrifying: enthusiasm.
The narrative of the heroin addict in mid to late 20th century storytelling is a rich one made most famous in literature by Claude Brown, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs in the fifties, on the stage and screen by Shirley Clarke’s The Connection (1961), Jerry Schatzberg’s The Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Alex Cox’s Sid and Nancy (1986). Trainspotting continues that thread, starting in 1993 with a novel by Irvine Welsh, dramatized and staged a year later, then hitting the big screen catapulting the careers of a number of young actors. The critical success of the film may have even reinvigorated the genre, with films like Permanent Midnight (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000) to follow.
Last Saturday night, eleven years since it’s first LA run, Roger Mathey and the seat of your pants production company revived Harry Gibson’s much lauded stage adaption at the Elephant Theatre. With members of the original Los Angeles cast reprising their roles this production is unique in that it includes performances separated by a decade of life experience.
“A lot has changed since then,” says Libby Letlow, Alison in the play.
“When I first approached the role I had the intention of Mark being liked,” says Zachary. “But Mark is actually a very selfish character. And it’s ok to not be liked.”
Newcomers, like 2012 BAFTA Newcomer of the Year Elizabeth Knowelden (Lizzie in the play) agree.
“This cast is completely committed to the material, completely generous,” says Knowelden. “And that can be quite uncommon.”
The reason for bringing Trainspotting back to the stage is a simple one, though.
“The story is still relevant,” says David Agranov, co-producer and one of the two actors to play Tommy.
Set in Edinburgh, Scotland in the late eighties, Trainspotting centers on the lives of Mark, Alison and Tommy who all turn to heroin for different reasons.
At first, the characters cook and shoot up, doing so without a shred of noticeable responsibility. Then sometime in their stupor Alison’s baby stops crying and when it is revealed why, the stakes are set and there is no confusion about the cost. Junk is the defilement of their youth.
But heroin is not the standard by which all characters are judged. If anything, it is a substitute for the one drug they all covet most: peace. And if there is one character who most embodies this it is not Mark, Alison or Tommy, but Tommy’s girlfriend, Lizzie.
“Tommy is the heart of the show,” says AJ Jones, the second of the two actors to play Tommy. “But Lizzie is his peace. She keeps him out of the ‘junkie’ culture. Without her the door opens for heroin.”
Likewise, “Tommy is her drug,” says Knowelden.
But without his ‘peace’, Tommy assuming the vacated role of innocence plunges into Mark and Alison’s dark world. And we the audience get to watch from inception to completion as he begins to use.
Trainspotting is a story about stories, parables of sorts, unforgiving in its storytelling. Explicit heroin use. Outrageous sex. Pre-hipster horniness. When one job interviewer asks Mark to ‘explain the gaps’ in his employment history, Mark responds by pulling up his sleeve and showing him his track marks. Much of the play follows suit in similar fashion.
But beyond the ugly,there is optimism that permeates each of the characters lives. It is not the never-ending search for dope, but the one for peace that the characters embark on. It is an exploration through addiction and folly, of the ways we find to kill and consistently sacrifice our youth, the numerous opportunities to regain it and the ways we allow them to dissolve.
As the oncoming train sounds in the distance we stand with Mark at the station, observing, listening to the exhaust herald at least one other message than the obvious “heroin is bad.” That is, the transition from adulthood in its bleakest corners is a defilement of youth.
Or, maybe, the defilement of youth is resistance of adulthood.
Nothing is ever clear. No points ever defined.
Karl Marx one wrote that ‘religion is the opiate of the masses,’ but for as long as it has been in use, there has not yet been a better substitute than the real thing. And all these kids partake in it.
“Smack is an honest drug,” echoes Alison.
“What does it do?” asks Tommy.
Trainspotting plays at the Elephant Theatre (6322 Santa Monica Blvd) and runs from March 8 – April 13 (Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 7pm). For more information visit them at www.plays411.com/trainspotting or call 323.960.7785.