There’s a scene in Doglife, one of this year’s most talked-about plays at the Edinburgh Fringe, where the wife of a Glaswegian gangland enforcer, confronting him about his job, suddenly writhes onstage as if experiencing the violence he inflicts on others: she describes having her fingers cut off, then reels as if she can feel thumbs pressing into her eye sockets, before finally shrieking that an an axe has been planted in her head. It’d be a disturbingly non-naturalistic, horror-filled moment in any play, but has an even more potent charge here: the man sharing the stage with her actually did those things.
You hear a lot about the ‘transformative’ power of theatre, but for Thomas McCrudden, a 46-year-old ex-convict, that’s no woolly statement – it’s a brutal truth. After getting out of prison desperate to change, he enrolled in college at 40, he wrote stories about the Glasgow housing schemes he grew up in Blackhill and his life as a criminal thug meting out beatings. These were passed on to theatre-makers Jeremy Weller and Mark Traynor, who thought there might be a play there; McCrudden had to google what a play even was.
Weller and Traynor specialise in putting real lives onstage using non-professional actors – so from the beginning, it was decided McCrudden would perform his own story. The result was Doubting Thomas, which opened at last year’s fringe; the second part, Doglife, looks at his struggles with love. The cast, playing women from his past, are mostly non-professionals who, in sharing their own experience of emotional or physical abuse in the rehearsal room, have also fed into the show. Short scenes offer snapshots of McCrudden’s relationships with several different women over the course of his life; while he doesn’t physically abuse them, the show explores the toxicity of brutalised masculinity and the devastating impact it had on the women who had the misfortune to fall for him. McCrudden exposes his own cheating, fear of commitment, cold refusal to show love, volatile temper – and how violent gang work always came first.
It’s raw, powerful stuff, with the women flinging accusations of his failure to love them or treat them properly back in his face and McCrudden being honest about how he made a living by hurting others. “The process was difficult,” says McCrudden. “For months, it was just Jeremy and myself and Mark in a room with a camera, basically me confessing my sins. Not just my sins – my dreams, my hopes.”
It’s always hard to look at yourself and judge yourself. Every day, looking back at who I was and the things I was capable of doing… I didn’t have love for myself.
Revisiting scenes from his life is painful; McCrudden has had nightmares since the show opened. “It is hard. It’s always hard to look at yourself and judge yourself. Every day, looking back at who I was and the things I was capable of doing… It’s confronting not [just] my lack of love for my kids and my mother and the lassies in my life, but that I didn’t have love for myself.”
McCrudden grew up in a loving home – it was at school and on the streets of his deprived neighbourhood that he was taught to turn to violence. “You get assaulted, you get put down, you get ridiculed every day. Rage built up and rage built up. I was lost. I had more answers in the dark than in the light. Teachers, the people who were meant to show me a better light, didn’t; there were other people in my environment that showed me how to gain power differently. These gangsters, they saw someone they could shape. And then that was my life then till I went to prison.”
The vicious assaults he metered as part of Glasgow criminal underbelly never seemed real; he claims he was numb to it. “Of course it was real, but it wasn’t them I was hitting: I was hitting the world, I was hitting society, I was hitting the police, I was hitting the teachers.”
The process of doing the show has been therapeutic for those involved. “It’s been quite difficult looking back – at the time I was not even aware that I was in a bad relationship because I was so blinded by love,” says Gillian Gibson, a non-professional actress whose own experiences have fed into her portrayal of one of the women in McCrudden’s life. “It’s been quite therapeutic really. The best thing has been Thomas’ honesty, which has allowed everybody in the cast to go places we wouldn’t normally. You don’t naturally sit down and tell somebody about all the horrible things that have happened in your life. Even if it’s been difficult sometimes, people getting upset, it’s really powerful to be given that opportunity. And also to put that truth onstage.”
If there are clear benefits for the participants – McCrudden adds that if it wasn’t for this project, his life “might be a different story” – what do such shows offer audiences? Is there a danger that it’s all poverty porn voyeurism, theatre audiences simply flocking for a shocking?
McCrudden doesn’t think so. Initially wary of the project himself, what convinced him to take part on first meeting Weller and Traynor was the realisation that “there was no intention to make a story about glorified violence; they wanted to hear a story about a human being.”
Another non-professional cast member, Rosie McKay, insists the show is really about inspiring empathy. She’s “been in love with a man like Thomas”, and while revisiting that proved difficult, it also felt important. In our society, too often “people would just see Thomas as a mental case or an animal,” she suggests. “But I know how you can love someone like that, because he’s a person – he wasn’t born like that. He was shaped. And if he can change, anybody can change.”
Today, McCrudden is gravely committed to trying to change the world. He worked as a mentor for young men coming out of prisons for Scottish charity Positive Prison Positive Futures, until the funding for his role was cut – which he’s heartbroken about. He points to the suicides and riots in our prisons, and the cycles of violent crime and reoffending young men get stuck in. “There’s a forest of missed opportunities and mistakes these boys walk through – who better to guide them through than somebody that knows a path? But this is what society doesn’t put any value on – and that scares me, for our future, for us all.”
Still, there may be some who find the show distasteful – it’s all very well for McCrudden to reach towards redemption, but what about the victims of his violent crime? He gets a stage and a spotlight to tell his story; they do not. Although the show goes some way to mitigating this by giving voice to the women he hurt – his wife Frances spoke to the actress playing her to contribute to the show’s authenticity – it is still McCrudden we’re ultimately asked to empathise with.
He doesn’t feel he can ever expect forgiveness from his victims. But he does hope that shows like this deliver a message that helps both victims and perpetrators: that of understanding. “I want to teach people about the shadows of society. If you don’t shine a light on it, it will just keep on going,” he says. “We want to get people to open up and share what their struggles. If I had been able to that when I was younger, I might not have been on the path that I’m on.”
He also hopes that Doglife may reach young women who are involved with violent men, and give them courage – or just an early-warning call. “There’s young girls out there, my daughter’s age, who may meet a man like us…”
McCrudden expresses guilt in the show at not being there for his son and daughter, and while the former has watched the play, his daughter is one of those who has yet to forgive him. “You hurt their insides, their heart; once you start chipping away at someone’s love it’s hard to put that back. But I hope my daughter will listen [to the show] and it might change something.”
Still, there is a happy tale here too. McCrudden grins rather bashfully as he tells me that, while developing Doglife, he realised “I was in a love story.” The first woman we see McCrudden wooing onstage is a 13-year-old Frances; there followed an extremely turbulent relationship with the play showing her frustrations with his cheating behaviour, violent moodswings, and towards his job. But three years ago, the pair tentatively reconnected – and just as he opened Doglife, McCrudden finally told her he loved her. Given the show is all about his lifelong inability “to say the L word”, it’s a remarkable turnaround.
“The first time I met Thomas, he said he didn’t know what love was,” says Gibson. “It shocked me. He just didn’t feel, even for his kids and his family… what a journey.”
Now, he says ‘I love you’ to Frances every day. “That personal side has been priceless,” beams McCrudden. “Was that my reason for doing the show? No, but it’s been a bonus. It’s made me realise it’s ok to say that you love someone, and mean it.”
Doglife is at Summerhall till 27 August