by Joseph Farrell

From Neverland to Wasteland – Playwright David Greig’s Journey

August 13, 2010 | by Joseph Farrell

David Greig is a playwright of considerable intellect and range who invites his spectators to undertake a quest. His restless imagination is at odds with the openness of his style of theatre, a style which sees him posing questions without claiming to have answers. This is not merely feigned ignorance, as is the case with playwrights even of the stature of George Bernard Shaw, who know from the outset the stance they are coaxing spectators to embrace. With Greig, the quest is real for both playwright and audience.

Born in 1969, Greig was raised in Nigeria, arriving in Edinburgh at the age of twelve.

Since his first plays were produced in the early 1990s, he has written over thirty works. He is currently the dramaturg of the National Theatre of Scotland. The publication of seven of his plays gives an opportunity to look at his work so far. Plays One samples different moods and styles. His versatility is remarkable, but it is important to distinguish between his own work and collaborative ventures. It is, of course, a truism that all theatre is inherently cooperative, relying on the input of writers, directors, actors, designers. Giles Havergal at the Citizens would, especially in his younger days, repeat that the writer was no more than primus inter pares. David Greig cooperates, firstly and most deeply, with Graham Eatough of Suspect Culture, the company both men established together during their student days in Bristol.

After graduation, they moved the company base to Glasgow, and stated that one of their aims was to give their productions a European edge. The company have several times used languages and actors from other countries and have performed in different European cities, as well as in Scotland. The text was to have equal weighting with music and design, and on occasions the script emerged after sessions of improvisation with actors, which left Greig with material he wrote up into a final form.

The Architect (1996) is a striking example of his early, independent work. The title itself was enough to delude certain reviewers that this was a work of Ibsenite inspiration. The protagonist was not a master-builder afflicted with metaphysical aspirations and doubts, but an honest, idealistic craftsman of the type who had been active in the post-war planning boom, but who had seen his buildings scorned by the people forced to live in the places he had designed. “I was asked to build cheap homes,” he tells Sheena, an inhabitant of such a place, “I put as much imagination, as much thought, as much of myself into these buildings as any…” he says, before his voice trails off in defeated bewilderment. He chooses to die in one of his constructions when the decision is made to dynamite it. The play is naturalist in style, ethical in substance and sited in a precise environment.

But that is only one of Greig’s styles of theatre-making. Plays One includes two one-act pieces, Kyoto and Being Norwegian, which are witty takes on sexual politics, the first featuring international conference delegates whose minds have not always been on the fate of the planet, the second depicting a seeming mismatch between a man, probably Scottish, and woman, probably Norwegian, who have just met in a pub and are making tentative steps towards sleeping together. Brewers Fayre, the most recent piece, has the delicacy of a prose-poem. The dialogue is not attributed clearly to the named characters and the audience is invited to speak some lines. The babble of voices may represent the meeting of disparate people on a website, but each has different needs and yearnings, powerfully or poignantly expressed.

Always the consummate theatrical professional, in recent years his versatility has seen Greig turn his hand to adaptations. Maybe the impulse behind the choice of adaptations is nothing more than the challenge and offer of a commission, but the nature of his intervention in the works themselves is revealing. Adaptations can be done for a variety of reasons, but they always involve moving the play towards the audience, while translations require the audience to move towards the play. Greig has no truck with the patrician assumption made by some producers that audiences are incapable of meeting the challenge posed by other cultures or ages, so he does not provide crutches for lazy spectators. He is gifted with a sympathetic imagination and a creative intellect which leads him to release in fresh language an energy already present in the fibres of the original piece.

His version of Euripides’ Bacchae (2007) for the National Theatre of Scotland, with Alan Cummings in the central role as Dionysus, was a masterly reworking which left intact the time, the setting and the values of the Greek tragedy. The adaptation of Strindberg’s Creditors (2008) for the Donmar Warehouse took as its starting point the awareness that the work does not dramatise an ethical or sexual dilemma specific to nineteenth-century Sweden. A lesser playwright would have been tempted to update, to eliminate nuances or subtleties, to blare out originally understated disputes. It would have been easy to tone down Strindberg’s notorious misogyny – an overused term but one with validity in the case of the Swedish writer – and to re-frame the conflict between the two men over the one woman in terms more acceptable to contemporary taste. Greig did not change the underlying architecture of the work, and the miracle was that Strindberg was enabled to address, with uncomfortable directness, sexual clashes known to our age too.

The recent adaptation of Peter Pan, once again for the NTS, was a different matter. Greig remoulded the play so thoroughly as to make him second creator, or re-creator, and this adaptation provides an invaluable key to his work as a whole. It is now clear that a Neverland is the natural habitat of David Greig’s imagination – but not the whimsical Neverland of Barrie, much less the fantasy land prettified even further by Walt Disney. (God knows what Michael Jackson thought he was doing when he gave that name to his own homestead.) For Greig, unlike Barrie, Neverland is not the abode of good-hearted pirates, of jealous fairies, of Red Indians on the warpath or of a menacing crocodile which will in the end see that justice is meted out to villains. It is well rooted and is an alternative dimension of reality. It is, for this play, not far from the banks of the Firth of Forth, in Central Scotland. The ‘lost boys’ are not youngsters misplaced in space who decline to grow up and who long for a virginal mother to tell them fairy stories before tucking them up for bed, but the young men who lost their lives in the construction of the Forth Bridge.

A Neverland recurs in many of Greig’s plays. It can never be precisely placed on a map but remains tantalisingly over the horizon. The American Pilot (included in this volume of plays) is set in some land where a civil war had been underway “for many years” before the pilot’s plane comes down, exposing the injured man to the vicissitudes of a conflict he does not understand. Many of his plays are set in borderlands between unidentified countries, or else in places of transit, stations, airports or airplanes. Real places, especially Scotland and Nigeria, are referred to, but the environment itself is neither entirely real nor entirely unreal. Greig creates situations that are familiar and characters who are in history even if they have little history of their own. He is not a realist who holds mirrors up to society, but nor is he a writer of fantasy drama. He combines the two, disconcertingly.

That was the case with San Diego. The characters include one David Greig, although he did not play himself in the 2003 production. ‘David Greig’ is not really David Greig, but the character addresses the audience in a prologue which informs the audience that “San Diego has featured in almost no fictions, no films novels or plays, but it has served as unnamed backdrop for several episodes of America’s Missing Children”. It is not clear whether the play is a slice of life or whether it is a film being chaotically shot. While they may be figures in a film, the characters are a series of casualties created by a writer called David, who is stabbed in the course of the action, but who returns to make comments on notions such as identity.

Pyrenees features a man found in the snow as he was attempting to cross frontiers, but who has no memory of himself, and who thus inhabits a private Neverland. “I was everything. Everything was me. There was no me.” The situation is, presumably by chance, similar to that at the core of Pirandello’s play As You Desire Me, made into a Holly-wood film in which Greta Garbo gave one of her most memorable performances. In Pyrenees, two women attempt to claim the amnesiac, one the official from the British embassy who had been sent to investigate his dilemma and the other a woman who believes he is her husband, and invites him to come home to Scotland. If this is a play on the very contemporary issue of personal or collective identity, it is also notable for the poetic quality of the dialogue. Greig eschews the forced broken diction of Davis Mamet in favour of a dialogue which displays a sense of the rhythm of the words and of the music of exchanges, and which surpasses naturalistic prose. The lines have been set out by the publisher in short bursts, not in the continuous flow of naturalistic dialogue, as in these lines spoken by Vivienne, the presumed wife:

It took me the whole morning walking before I reached the snow.

I saw a deer.

Drinking at the burn.

Caught in the sunlight.

Just idyllic.

Outlying Islands is set on a distant land which resembles St Kilda or the Aran islands which so moved the imagination of J M Syn-ge, but it is not the culture or beliefs of the people which are the focal point so much as the political decision to experiment with anthrax, making this Neverland a Wasteland.

Where are these islands, where is this San Diego, where is the country the Ameri-can pilot parachutes into? It does not matter – or rather, you’re asking the wrong question. It is a measure of Greig’s developing ambition and achievement that his more recent work probes dilemmas which are not the manifestation of specific era or geo-political circumstances. For Neverland can be a million miles away, and still be as close as next door.

David Greig is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 17.00 on

17 August

PLAYS ONE David Greig

FABER AND FABER, £16.99, ISBN 9780413772534, PP301

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