A Play about The Pirate

Marco Pantani’s life will be examined on the boards of a proscenium arch as opposed to a velodrome – Stuart Hepburn’s third play, The Pirate will be directed by David Overend for Oran Mor and will be onfrom Monday 13th of May until Saturday 18th of May.

Stuart has been acting and writing since graduating from the University Of Stirling in 1982. A look at his website reveals the extent of his work – TV, films, plays, as well as being Programme Leader of a Contemporary Screen Acting degree at the University of the West of Scotland.

What drives a man to the pinnacle of professional cycling, yet leads him to the depths and of squalor despair? “The Pirate” traces Marco’s journey from the poverty of his upbringing in the streets of Cesena, to his ultimate tragic end at the age of cruelly early age of 34.


Tedious opening question, but what is your Background in cycling?
I had a bike from Halfords when I was 14 and used to cycle a few miles. About 15 years ago I decided to raise some money for Enable, the Scottish mental health charity, and I went on a sponsored cycle ride down the Nile, so I had to get fit. I cycled up and down Glen Artney on a very ill-fitting mountain bike. I’ve just kept going, I do it to keep fit and I commute when I can and take it on the train but I’m not a member of a club or anything like that. But I have got more and more interested in the psychology and the history of cycling.

So was Pantani one of your favourite cyclists?
I think I’m a bit old for favourites, but what intrigues me is characters. How this came about was, I was in Rock and Road cycles, and my mate Tom McGovern, who is an actor, said- I’ve got a play for you: Marco Pantani! So I started researching him, and this was about 4 years ago. We were thinking Tom might be in the play, what was it going to be about and what was the angle, and I started and stopped several times. And then, horror of horrors… the whole thing was going to be a juxtaposition of the clean guy and the drugged guy, and we all know what side of the fence Marco was on… but then everything got muddy and blurred and the more I researched about the supposed clean ones, the more I realised it was a lot more complex than I previously thought. And one Lancelot Armstrong was a major character in it, and he was meant to be Mr Clean. The whole thing was up in the air because it doesn’t really work, after you hear rumours, and by the time the whole Greg Lemond thing came up, with the accusations and everything, you realise that it wasn’t only the French, saying he was “at it”.

Then I had a chat to a friend, a colleague, David Overend and we said, don’t make it about drugs, why not make it about heroes? Obviously everything came into the public domain about Armstrong, and after that things started to flow and I knew what I wanted it to be about. So now ‘it’s not about the drugs’, it’s about heroes, and why do heroes fail?

We talked to David Maclennan of Oran Mor, and A Play, A Pie and A Pint, who thought it was a great idea, as no-one had ever written a cycling play up here before, so they decided to put it on.

Obviously Pantani is a complex character- presumably an ideal subject to write about?
He really is, because people like him are just different, they’re not like us- not just physically but mentally, and I wanted to try to understand that. So many sporting champions fall from grace – why is that? What makes Joey Barton the way he is? What is it about Paul Gasgoigne, about these genuises? If you know anything about Pantani you’ll know that he is a very unusal character: quite flamboyant on the outside but a real loner on the inside and racked with problems and issues, with his mother, and his father never really thought much of him, so we have got lots to be going on with!

We seem to have a dearth of ‘characters’ in the peloton, or in professional sport generally these days. The pressure of the media is such that riders tend to try not to give very much away of their own personalities.
That’s absolutely the case – why should Bradley Wiggins say anything at all when the few words he says are completely distorted? I don’t blame the cyclists- I’d be pretty enigmatic myself, knowing what the press do. It’s good that people care about cycling but anything that any cyclist says in public I take with a pinch of salt because they are very wary about what they are saying, and that’s unfortunate.

A revelation for me was when I met Robert Millar in the 1980s, and a very strange character he was – I could tell there was something very different about him. Robert wouldn’t talk to anyone about anything because he didn’t want his words to be misinterpreted, so that’s very interesting for a dramatist.

Now they are publicity machines, and they have probably got a press officer standing next to them making sure they don’t say the wrong things, simply because it’s such big business. Sky have come in with millions of pounds, and it’s hanging on sponsorship. I see Rabobank have withdrawn, and I heard about the no-name team – it’s a big deal when a major sponsor says ‘to hell with you lot’, and we know what’s happened with Sky where you have people scuttling off into the shadows because they couldn’t prove they were clean from the beginning. And you have it’s big big business now.

Who are the more interesting characters in your opinion?
The other Millar – David – I think what he’s been through is amazing, I think his book is awesome, just the searing honesty of it is very instructive. How he was sucked into the whole thing, and took part in the silence, and then came out the other side. My greatest memory of cycling is of defeat – it was him going up Montjuic, making a breakaway in Barcelona and you thought ‘please please win’ and he didn’t, but by god he tried, on his home turf! He’d gone through the mill, then cycled clean, and then came out and told the truth, so I admired that.

I love Cavendish because he says what he bloody well likes! He must be a nightmare for a press officer.

The ones I really can’t abide are the ones taht have cheated in the past. If Alberto Contador cycled past my door, I wouldn’t wave, put it that way. Or someone like Vinokourov. They take away your idealism, when you think ‘look at the way he went up there’ but then you find out ‘so that’s how he did it’. I’m older now but I think kids need heroes and they need to know that their heroes are at some level, honest.

“Professional cycling as theatre” – maybe that’s a pretentious comment or do you think there is any truth in it?!
I think it is – there is a performativity to all sport – I go to watch football every week. If there are two guys going up Alpe d’Huez – you don’t know how it’s going to end. All you ask for as an audience is that they aren’t conning us.

They look great, and the bikes look fabulous, and there is a great deal of performance these days at the top level. It works the way it does because it looks so good on the telly. If you go to watch a cycling race, it goes past in about 10 seconds, but we can watch them going up the Pyrenees and we can watch it all from the comfort of our own homes and it is wonderful television.

Then we went on to discuss how theatre works – with a play like this, on a short run, the full rehearsals only start shortly before the actual performance. The art of the dramatist and director come into play, to develop and realise Stuart’s script: ‘he weaves from side to side’ … like ‘a reed swaying in the wind’ … ‘he tightens his cleats’ – so it will be intriguing to see how this is represented on stage.

Marco Pantani: The Pirate is showing at Oran Mor in Glasgow
Monday 13th of May till Saturday 18th of May.

Stuart Hepburn on twitter