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Giving a good right hook and upper cut is all in the performance for the actors in Beautiful Burnout
Cameron Burns is going places. He’s fighting for his club, his mum, his place in the world. And this boy is a natural – he has an affinity with the violence, the balance, the ritual, the grace and the power of the most controversial sport of our time.
Beautiful Burnout is a play about boxing, but it’s also a deeply human story of five young fighters as they aim for the bright lights – far from Glasgow’s mean, grey streets. It’s a very modern production, with audio-visual technology playing a large part in proceedings, but the main focus is undoubtedly the physical exertions of the human bodies on stage, with much of the play resembling a highly intense work-out.
“We wanted to take an audience into the world of boxing from the grass roots up,” explains artistic director Scott Graham. “A lot of people have an opinion about boxing, and the creative team had mixed opinions about it too.
“What people might not see is the grass roots, family side of it – it’s an incredible supportive environment that young boxers might not find elsewhere in their lives. But the underlying problem is it’s a very violent sport and gets more so the more you move through it.”
Beautiful Burnout is the story of a boxing trainer, a mother, her son and all the young wannabes in the gym, and deals with how the spectre of success changes their relationships, alters the ethos of the gym and, ultimately, how this group of people then deals with damage.
“A large part of our research was seeing how the boxing world deals with damage,” says Scott. “They’ll tell you, rightly, that it’s statistically one of the safest sports but that when it goes wrong it goes wrong spectacularly.
“There was a famous incident in London in 1995, Nigel Benn fighting Gerald McClellan. In the 10th round, McClellan collapsed in the ring, and he had brain damage, blindness, memory problems. A photographer was making a documentary last year and interviewed McClellan’s friend Roy Jones Junior. He asked Roy how McClellan was and he didn’t know, he hadn’t been to see him. He said ‘When I stop boxing I’ll go and visit him’. That typified the boxing response – they have to compartmentalise it.”
The play follows the five young boxers through their initial days in the gym to their first forays into the professional world.
“There’s a massive physical progression,” says Scott. “The actors have had three months of boxing training and that continues throughout the tour. The aim of the show is to pass them off as good boxers.
“A couple of them have continued with the boxing and all of them have lost between half a stone and a stone during rehearsals. It was very hard finding the right people, we wanted a truthful, brilliant actor who could handle the physicality and the boxing training. It was quite hard! But we have found brilliant people, and it’s really exciting to see them developing.
“The rehearsals were run like a boxing gym,” Scott says. “The room was full of punching bags, skipping ropes, weights. Normally when you have a break, you get actors lounging about on sofas talking about their agents, but here as soon as you said ‘break’ everybody went to the weights or the skipping ropes – that’s the dedication.”
All the action takes place in front of a wall of video screens that show what is going on inside the head of the boxer. “It’s the grime versus the aspiration,” says Scott, “we can capture the sweat of the training at the same time as showing the aspirations, the beauty, the ultimate aim and glory of what they’re aiming for on the screens, that softer side.”
- Beautiful Burnout is at artsdepot, Nether Street, Tally Ho Corner, North Finchley, from Tuesday, October 16 to Friday, October 19 at 7.30, with a 2pm matinee on Wednesday, October 17 and Friday, October 19. Details: 020 8396 5454, www.artsdepot.co.uk