November 2006 Scotland on Sunday
IT'S been a good year for Brian Ferguson. It's only November and the 26-year-old actor has already appeared in three shows by the National Theatre of Scotland, a company that is barely 10 months old. "I was called the National Theatre bitch," he laughs. "I'm not sure how I feel about that, but it's been fantastic."
Right now you can see him in Snuff, Davey Anderson's housing scheme drama that was first staged by Glasgow's Arches and picked up by the NTS for a revival under its "Unmissable" strand. Earlier in the year, Ferguson got up-close and personal in Falling, an NTS collaboration with Poorboy that took place in streets, subway trains and offices around Glasgow, the audience following the actor on a devilish journey in pursuit of an elusive woman.
Most prestigiously, Ferguson starred as Cammy, the wisest of the troops in Gregory Burke's celebrated Black Watch, the runaway hit of the Edinburgh Fringe. In a production full of highlights, Ferguson stood out for his ability to draw the audience into a play that refused to pander to the received wisdom about the war in Iraq. He was at once a dedicated soldier – one of the lads, a team player in a macho environment – and a clear-headed analyst of the tactics of the coalition forces.
Taking on the role was as much a revelation to Ferguson as it was to the audience. "I've never done a show where I was quite so aware of all my opinions on the subject," says the Glasgow actor, looking forward to next year's proposed tour of Scottish drill halls, followed by a set of international dates likely to equal any military tour of duty. "Most of the soldiers in Iraq are not thinking about it politically at all, so when they hear all this criticism of the war, it's just so demoralising. They don't fight for a cause, they fight because it's an honourable and a good fun thing to do. The hardest thing for me was setting aside all the core beliefs that I've been brought up with and working with a different set of beliefs. It changed my mind about the people who fight the war and gave me a lot of respect for them."
As part of his research for the play, which was based on interviews with the regiment's veterans, he talked to soldiers about their experiences and came to realise that theirs was a story too often overlooked. "The most interesting thing for me was meeting this guy who'd been out for five years in Iraq," he says. "He came to see the show one night and we went out for a few beers. It's very easy to have a point of view about things when it's not a real person in front of your face. When it's this really sound guy sitting at the table opposite from you and you get on, you think, 'It's just a job.' He loved the show. He was quite upset because if you were out there and you knew the folk, it's going to be pretty hard to watch."
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Nobody could have predicted the scale of the show's popularity – even Prince Charles couldn't get a ticket for the three-week run – and it was only as the first performances drew near that Ferguson got a sense of the power of their material. "You just don't know how an audience is going to react, but by the time we were in the venue and we were starting to run lights and sound, we were thinking it was quite something," he says. "The reaction was unbelievable. You just don't know if you're going to hit it perfect in terms of what people are feeling and what they're ready to hear. If you ever needed a reason for a National Theatre of Scotland, this was it. Having the money to attract a world-wide audience seems so refreshing."
Although he currently longs to get his teeth into some Shakespeare – something he hasn't done since training at Glasgow's RSAMD – Ferguson is most associated with performing new plays in unusual places. He was among the cast of Douglas Maxwell's Decky Does a Bronco, staged by Grid Iron in children's play parks, and he's an artistic associate with Poorboy with whom he's performed around the shops and warehouses of Dundee City Quay as well as the streets of Glasgow. "I love that kind of work," he says. "The character has to be completely human because people are right in front of your face. It takes a layer off the performance and has to feel very natural. It was the same in Black Watch, doing the first monologue taking directly to the audience."
There are a couple of new Poorboy projects in development, but for now he's focusing on Snuff, just back from a run in London and heading for a home leg at the Arches after a few nights in Belfast. He plays Kevin, a disenfranchised young man living in a high-rise scheme who has become dangerously paranoid about the political changes in the outside world. "One of the reasons I do theatre is to try and change things," he says. "Good new writing that opens up people's eyes to what's going on in the world can only be a good thing. Davey Anderson is brilliant for that."
Snuff, Arches Theatre, Glasgow, November 21–25
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