Last time I interviewed playwright David Greig our subject matter was light: we were discussing the opening of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the West End juggernaut musical directed by Sam Mendes for which Greig penned the book.
That was three years ago, and boy have a few things changed since. On a personal level, Greig has taken on the artistic directorship of Edinburgh’s historic Royal Lyceum theatre. And at a national level, his native Scotland has gone through two epoch-shifting referenda and looks set for another. Suffice it to say we have a fair bit to catch up on.
I start with the Lyceum. He must have been heartened by the overwhelmingly positive response to his appointment? “People have been very warm. I’m incredibly lucky that the Lyceum board and staff are excited and up for the adventure. But also that the audience have reacted well to my appointment and to the first season. It’s a great way to begin.”
He describes the job thus far as a mix of “enormous pleasure” and “very, very hard work”. And it’s about to get harder, seeing as his first official production at the helm opens as part of the Edinburgh International Festival.
Wind Resistance is a song cycle by Karine Polwart inspired by the annual migration of thousands of pink-footed geese from Greenland to a peat bog near Edinburgh called Fala Flow. Greig acted as dramaturg on the project after encountering Polwart’s work during the 2014 independence referendum. They were both members of a "bus party" comprising a mix of artists from both sides of the debate, who set out to take the temperature of the nation ahead of the vote.
“I watched her perform day after day on that trip, and was particularly struck by the stories she told between songs,” Greig enthuses. “I told her they were beautifully crafted dramatic monologues, and we hatched a plan to collaborate.”
He describes Wind Resistance as a “one-woman non-fiction musical” and compares it to the nature writing of Robert Macfarlane and Kathleen Jamie. Significantly, it’s being performed in the Lyceum’s rehearsal rooms, the first time a show has been created specifically for that space. “It’s a bit of statement of intent for the Lyceum in that it’s form-bending, it features music at its heart, and it’s about exploring new ways of working.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the castle, Fringe venue Assembly Hall is staging a revival of Greig’s 2012 ‘play with songs’ Glasgow Girls. Written with Cora Bissett, it chronicles a group of teenagers fighting for the rights of their asylum-seeking friend, and subsequently all those seeking refuge in Scotland. Greig and Bissett have adapted and trimmed the show for the Fringe running time and space—it was originally seen at the Citizens Theatre—but it’s otherwise unchanged.
The themes of Glasgow Girls could hardly be more prescient in light of last month’s EU referendum. It won’t come as a surprise to learn the Greig, like the majority of Scots, was disappointed by the result. And he is especially worried about the ramifications of Brexit for the arts community.
“I feel a kind of cultural humiliation. We have colleagues and collaborators across Europe, many of whom I’ve felt the need to apologise to in the wake of the result. Part of the point of a company like the Lyceum is to present the European repertoire and place Scottish work within a European context. It feels like the rug has been pulled out from under our feet.”
So how will the Lyceum be involved in the debate to come, considering there is likely to be a second referendum on independence? “I sense a desire for people to come together and discuss what’s on their minds. Art and theatre in particular has a very important role to play in that. In the immediate term we’ll be welcoming people to Edinburgh from around the world during the festival and I sincerely hope that will open up some discussions and reflections.”
As for a dramatic response, Greig emphasises that his upcoming adaptation of Aeschylus's The Suppliant Women, about 50 mythical Egyptian sisters who desperately seek refuge overseas, is a play from the “dawn of democracy” that speaks directly to our times. He also hints that he will have Europe on his mind when programming his second season.
“Edinburgh is an international city: we have thousands of Polish, French, Irish, Lithuanian citizens living here. Part of my job at the Lyceum is to engage those people and communities as artists and audiences. I fear they must be feeling less than wholly welcome currently, which is very troubling.”
But he also wants to reach across the divide to understand and explore the other side of the argument. After all, theatre is all too often accused of being a forum where the liberal intelligentsia speak only to each other.
“If empathy is the muscle and theatre is the gym, those of us who are currently feeling bereft need to work harder at trying to think our way into the minds and emotions of people who voted to leave. There’s a lot of work for theatre to do, and it’s not about gathering in the same place agreeing.”
I’m intrigued to know whether, as a writer, he feels the need to directly address current political events? “No,” he replies after a pause. “And the reason is that one should always have an eye on these things. A good dramatist has already written the play for the moment.”