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THE SRB INTERVIEW: David Greig – Scottish Review of Books
David Greig: ‘My way to maintain a sense of becoming is never to feel at home’.
by Nick Major


June 2, 2018 | by Nick Major

One of the age-old qualities of art is its capacity to transcend the limits of place, time and selfhood. At a time when countries around the world – especially in Europe – are retreating into themselves, art might function as a countervailing force: a way of looking beyond the horizon.

The playwright and director David Greig has never been afraid to roam far and wide in his plays. His main-stage debut at the Traverse in 1996 was called Europe. It was set in an anonymous European border town and explored the impact of mass migration and civil war at the end of the twentieth century. A later play, San Diego (2003), switched between twenty different locations and explored the myriad disorientations of globalisation. In The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union (1999), he even un-tethered his protagonists from the confines of the earth itself. As the title suggests, it featured two cosmonauts, floating in a capsule in space, forgotten by those who put them there but hoping to be remembered by those they love.

Greig was born in Edinburgh in 1969. After living in Nigeria for a decade, he spent his teenage years in the city of his birth, studied at Bristol University and moved back to Scotland shortly afterwards. In the early 1990s, he founded the Suspect Theatre Company with director Graham Eatough. Between 2005-2007, he was the National Theatre of Scotland’s first dramaturg. A prolific playwright, he has written, adapted and directed too many plays to mention but a few. Whether based in Scotland or not, they all contain the same worldly, otherworldly and deep political themes. Caledonia Dreaming, for example, was a satire about a Scottish member of the European Parliament with a wild ambition to bring the Olympic Games to Edinburgh. Dunsinane (2010) was a sequel to Macbeth. Although set in the 11th Century, it had a contemporary resonance: Britain’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. His work rate is matched by an almost quixotic sense of ambition. In August 2015, he accomplished the seemingly impossible, successfully adapting Alasdair Gray’s Lanark for the stage. Shortly afterwards, he was appointed
the Artistic Director of the Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre.

Nick Major met David Greig in one of the Lyceum’s plush, red-carpeted function rooms. Greig is tall and slim with short hair and youthful alert eyes. He was dressed in blue check shirt and wore a navy sweatshirt and jeans, and brown shoes. He had a quiet calm demeanour and an ability to talk at-length on any subject. Before he was whisked away on directorial duties, Greig talked about the art of putting together a theatre’s season programme, the particular pressures of writing for stage, and how his early years at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe have helped him direct the city’s most distinguished playhouse.

SRB: It would be useful to get a sense of your day-to-day life. What were you doing before this interview?

David Greig: I had a couple of meetings. I met with the Scottish Community Drama Association, which is an organising body for amateur theatre in Scotland. I wanted to see whether there were any connections we could build with them. I think there’s something very interesting about non-professional theatre. It’s something that I have done at the Lyceum in the past with community chorus. I have this profound feeling that, to quote Bertolt Brecht, ‘Theatre is a transformative art and the people it transforms the most are those who make it.’ I had a meeting with the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow on a similar topic – to find ways that we could be of help to their students and their students could be of help to us. We are about to make our season announcement so immediately after this interview I will be speaking to the whole Lyceum company. That will be the first of a phase of announcements. We announce it to the company, then the subscribers, then to the public. So that’s an exciting phase of the theatre’s life. There isn’t really a day-to-day, but there’s a certain rhythm to the theatre: the productions come through and there’s the first day of rehearsal, dress rehearsals, last run-through, previews and openings, and that sort of thing. But there’s a lot of writing work as well.

Do you have time to write built into your day?

I take writing days. I try to assign to each project the requisite amount of days. In some ways that’s good, but it is interesting for the writer in me. Before I had the job, writing was painful and unpleasant. I always broke deadlines and agonised and procrastinated and it always seemed like there wasn’t enough time. Now the same is true, although my actual writing days have shrunk from 365 to 50. I still get it done. I have just telescoped the angst into a shorter number of days. It’s efficient but I can’t say it’s pleasant. It’s also odd because normally the artistic director of a theatre is a director, so when they are doing their artistic work they are actually in the building – they have a presence. Whereas, when the artistic director is a writer they need solitude. I have to get away. I do think that absence can be problematic so I have started to rent a shop under the offices on the other side of the road. I sit in the window and write – part of that is so writing is less absent. People crossing between the office and the theatre can see me working.

Do you still go to a cottage on Rannoch Moor to write?

I still do that. There are phases of writing. I spend a long time on practical work, research and construction. Then I begin a slow-build, which I can do in periods of two days at a time. But there comes a point when I have to hit a draft. I find for that I need to go away. Part of the reason I go to Rannoch Moor is that there is no wi-fi or phone. In the modern world, I find that unbelievably productive.

Do you write on a computer?

Yes, I pretty much always have – I’m of that generation. The first mass market green screen Amstrads came out when I began writing plays.

In the introduction to your Collected Plays, you recount W.S. Graham becoming lost in a snowstorm on Rannoch Moor. For Graham, the empty white landscape became a metaphor for the white page. The writer has to navigate across both.

I use W.S. Graham’s work as a touchstone for a number of things. One of the questions I ask on any project is, how would W.S. Graham would write this play? It throws open a different approach. Graham’s poems are always written with the knowledge that they are being written. That translates to me as theatre that is aware of itself and is searching for a way to escape its own medium. In one of Graham’s poems, he describes a beast hammering on the other side of the page. Writers are trying to create an object that communicates something. They will never achieve it. But as a result of trying, what they create can have these resonances that go out to other people.

You also wrote, ‘Creating a play happens for me when, driven by some mad impulse, I strike out into the chaotic snowstorm of my heart and mind in search of a lift home.’ Your work is often set in liminal places: aeroplanes, hotels, and train stations. Do you know why?

I wrote a whole series of short plays set in the rooms and atriums of hotels. The poet John Burnside, in one of his poems, says, ‘forgive me this: I never really mastered coming home’. I think it is because I am what’s called a ‘third culture person’. Both of my parents and extended family are from Aberdeen but I’m not. I was brought up in Nigeria. So, I have a kind of convert’s zeal for belonging to a place because it’s not natural to me – I think to a certain degree that applies to Scotland as a general rule. I don’t have a natural feeling that I’m from here. I don’t sound like I’m from here and I have a slightly ambivalent relationship with Edinburgh.

A scene from David Greig’s adaptation of the Creditors.

Can you explain that ‘ambivalence’?

I don’t think it’s possible to be a citizen of Edinburgh and not be ambivalent about the city. People from Edinburgh would never do anything so vulgar as love their city. That’s something Glaswegians do. But joking aside, Edinburgh is an odd city. It is a capital that’s not a capital. It’s a beautiful Tuscan hill village. But it can be closed and small-minded. It’s an incredible cultural city and for one month of the year has an extraordinary burst of being. Yet, the city as an institution can be contemptuous of culture. In most cities, the middle class are confined to the suburbs and the working class are at the centre. In Edinburgh, that has been reversed, which creates an interesting and problematic dynamic. I would very much like the Lyceum to be Edinburgh’s city theatre but that’s something that takes a bit of work because Edinburgh is quite hard to reach in some ways.

Did you move from Edinburgh to Nigeria when you were young?

Yeah. My dad worked in Nigeria in the 1970s. He and my mother moved from Aberdeen to Lagos and then to a town called Jos in northern Nigeria. That was where I was largely brought up. I came back here towards the end of primary school, lived in Edinburgh and then went to university in Bristol. I had a period in Edinburgh as a teenager, but I didn’t come back until I was in my thirties. I now live in Fife so I’m not a resident. But Edinburgh is as close to home as I have. I should be clear, I do not think there is anything peculiar or unique about my peregrinations. It’s not a wound. As Bob Dylan said, ‘an artist should always be in a state of becoming’. Basically, when you think you’ve arrived, you always have to set off again. My way to maintain a sense of becoming is to never feel at home.

What was your life like in Nigeria?

I had an oddly Christian education. I went to an American Baptist Missionary School, but it was very mixed. There were Nigerian, Lebanese, Bulgarian and Russian children there. I found it idyllic. From a 1970s British perspective, West Africa had such colour and warmth and noise and excitement and life. That was an extraordinary privilege. At that point, Nigeria was just coming out of colonialism. There was huge optimism everywhere. There were regular coups during our time, but I was a kid and I didn’t really notice that.

Did you experience any theatre there?

It wasn’t until I went to Edinburgh Youth Theatre that I really encountered proper plays and theatre.

Why did you go to EYT?

Because there were girls there; I went to an all-boys school. I immediately liked it. It was clear to me that I wasn’t a very good actor, but I adored theatre and the company of actors, so the question became, how can I carry on doing this? At some stage, I tried to be a director and that is what I pursued at university. Writing came about because I was trying to find a way of being an interesting director. Everybody I knew in the early 1990s was doing radical re-workings of classic plays. I wanted to carve out a niche where someone would notice what I was doing. So, I decided to write and direct a new play. It took off from there.

Norman Mailer once said if you had to compare writing to one of the other arts, it would be acting – perhaps because both arts require the artist to inhabit the language of characters.

I see the sense of inhabiting another person, and I think there is a similarity. One thing actors sometimes say to me is, how did you hear the line? I always resist that question because, as I write a play, there is a repertory company in my head, and that company has an older woman, an ingénue, a leading man, all the stock types. But, the thing about them is that because I’m a terrible actor, so are they. One of the thrills of a rehearsal process is that when good actors get hold of the material they find the truth in it. A lot of people think I have recorded a perfect version of a play and everyone else is desperately trying to get at it. My experience is that I somehow find the play and my laborious process gets me to the play’s spirit. It takes off when it encounters other people.

That might illustrate one difference between a playwright and a novelist. Novelist has a greater sense of imaginative control over their work.

That’s the good thing about writing plays. I see it that you are creating a skeleton and other people put flesh on the bones. One of the analogies I use for playwrights and directors is climbing a mountain. I think writers want to create plays that are Mount Fuji. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good climber or where you start, you’re going to get up and you’re going to get down the mountain. Whereas directors love Annapurna – plays where there’s only one way up and only the boldest, and cleverest and best can find their way through and get back down. So, there’s always some tension between a playwright and a director because the playwright is always trying to create something that will work with any production. Whereas directors hate the idea that someone else could do the play equally well.

Is it more difficult to adapt an existing play than write a new one?

Not at all. Adaptations have their difficulties but it is much easier than writing my own play. I will be really annoyed if I haven’t put on some original plays by me over the coming few years. It was difficult in the first few years because it is always easier to create partnerships around an existing work. A new play is a much more complicated thing because you don’t know if it’s any good or if it will sell tickets. I am ready to write new plays. I have four or five thought-through ideas that need to be written.

You recently worked on Muriel Spark’s Doctor of Philosophy. Most people will know her as a novelist and a poet, but not as a playwright.

She did write radio plays, but she only wrote one stage play. Doctors of Philosophy is a brilliant and extraordinary piece of work that mixes Pirandello and Joe Orton and Oscar Wilde. It has deep elements of classic 1940s and 50s French windows-style plays but is inimitably her. There are five brilliant women characters and the male characters only exist as foils for the women. It was staged in 1963 and was a mixed success and was revived in Sweden, but apart from that it hasn’t really been seen. I was given it by Willy Maley, an academic from Glasgow University. We had a showing of some edited highlights at the Muriel Spark event at the Usher Hall, which was the closest I have ever got to a play-reading being a rock concert. That gave me a sense that it has legs. I am very hopeful that that it will see the light of day.

A scene from David Greig’s play The Suppliant Women, written for the Lyceum.

Thinking of plays being workshopped. I read that Dunsinane was workshopped before it was written. Does that happen often?

A lot, yeah. The labour of writing is getting myself to a position where the writing can begin. In order to write I need to get myself to a place where the act of not writing will result in more shame than the act of writing. Dunsinane is a long story, and it led me to a point where I was in a room with actors who were paid to be there, but there were literally no words to speak out-loud. I had to write live. I started walking from actor to actor and saying, ‘can you say this word’ or ‘can you say this sentence?’ It was not dissimilar to having the repertory company in my head – they were just in the room.

Can you talk about Suspect Culture, the theatre company you founded with Graham Eatough?

We founded that at university with Nick Powell, the composer, whose work is now commonly in the West End in London. The company began at university but we really founded ourselves in Glasgow in the 1990s. Our idea was always to try to decentre the text. I did write for the shows, but we would discuss what the show would be before I wrote the text. We were trying experiments with form and physicality and music. We did eventually get some funding and we managed ten years as a funded theatre company; we would roughly do a show a year.

Did the generation of provocative and politically-engaged playwrights, such as Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, who emerged in the 1990s, influence your work?

Shortly after I began, there was that new writing boom of the mid-1990s in London that got called ‘in-yer-face’ or ‘the movement’ – the Germans called it ‘blut und sperma’. It was interesting to me, but I was never part of it, and nor was David Harrower or Zinnie Harris or Stephen Greenhorn, who were my contemporaries in Scotland. Somehow Scotland sat slightly apart. At times we felt left out, but at other times we felt very lucky, especially once the wave had broken.

We’d never been fashionable, so we couldn’t be unfashionable

You weren’t chained to the zeitgeist?

There was no one play that defined us. We slowly built an audience. There’s fifteen million people in London and it is the heart of the establishment, so I understand the impulse in London to treat the audience as a parent so that you, the young writer, can be a teenager and you can shock them and show them how wrong they are – a section of the audience will be rather thrilled by that. But, if your home as a writer is the Traverse or the Tron or the Citizen’s, I don’t think you have that relationship with the audience. It’s much more consensual. You don’t have the same power dynamic. My theory is that it produces playwriting that is perhaps gentler on its audience, which isn’t to say it’s populist, but that it takes it much less for granted that its audience will come.

But you knew Sarah Kane at university?

I knew Sarah at university. We did plays together. My very first show was called A Savage Reminiscence. It was a monologue for Caliban after everybody has left the island. I wanted to stage that. Sarah had a monologue called comic monologue, which – being Sarah – was not very comic; it was a very bleak dark piece. That was the first time I was a producer. I booked the Hen and Chicken pub in Bristol for three nights, did a rough budget, used my overdraft and we put on a double bill. That started a process where I would use my overdraft to put on shows than would run for four nights in a pub.

In 1990, we took those shows to the Edinburgh Festival. I made friends with someone at university who had a clever scheme to take over the Masonic Lodge at the top of the Royal Mile opposite what is now The Hub. He wanted to fill it with student companies from drama departments of universities during the fringe. You would maybe get ten to twelve student shows in this one space, and you knew these people would be the writers, actors and directors of the future. I came to a deal with him where I would put a show in every slot he couldn’t sell. He took all the box office, but he gave me the franchise on the café and bar, so me and the actors ran that and kept the takings. We did that for two or three years. Those shows gave me the chance to do lighting, producing, set-designing, sound, and play-writing.

It was a kind of apprenticeship?

Yeah, it was really lucky in that way. I’m still in the same mindset. In some sense, the Lyceum is an extension of that. It is an endless search for slots in which I can put plays.

We had a showing of some edited highlights at the Muriel Spark event at the Usher Hall, which was the closest I have ever got to a play-reading being a rock concert

When you’re putting together a season programme for the Lyceum, do you have a cohesive vision for it?

The season is very personal and I see it as a work of art through time. This last season pushed political questions. The next one is much more inclusive and about bringing people together. That is just a gut response to the world. But in putting the programme together I’m trying to balance a huge number of things. This is by no means all of them: I think about the curation of the Scottish canon of the past and future; I think about what the political moment needs; I think about what plays appeal to our subscribers, but also how we reach more widely than our base. Like many regional British theatres, our subscriber base is in their fifties, sixties and seventies, so I think about if I need to do different work to attract a younger audience; I need to think about if we are doing enough work from Europe; I’m also really keen that fifty per cent of plays are written by women. But, a massive element is that the economics of theatre in Britain mean that for every play we make, we have to be looking for partner theatres to give it a long life.

How important is the economic side of theatre production?

For example, I was looking today at what was on at the Lyceum in the 1980s. That is basically just a list of good plays. One of the plays was Gerhart Hauptmann’s The Weavers. I was thinking, that’s a good play, I’d like to see that. But here’s the thing: back in the 1980s the subsidy [from the Scottish Arts Council] was properly at its height. You cannot underestimate how much subsidy has been taken away from this theatre over the last fifteen or twenty years. To put it in context: we have had fifteen years of standstill funding, and that’s with our recent uplift. So, my predecessor in the 1980s had something in the region of a million or more pounds per year to play with than me.

The thing about The Weavers is that it’s quite a big company. How much money is The Weavers going to bring in? Also, it’s not a big title. So, I think, can I invite David Tennant or someone who has some presence to the theatre? How’s that going to happen? I would need a director and a partner [theatre]. We might end up with a brilliant production. But, what I can’t do is what Ian Woolridge could do back in the 1980s, which is to simply say: let’s put on The Weavers. There is good and bad. The bad is I have to put in all that work, the good is when Woolridge put on The Weavers it was on for three weeks and that was that. Whereas, if in this putative world I was able to put on a production, it would live in this theatre and partner theatres and it would have this other life.

Do you know why Creative Scotland have restricted your funding?

The building-based theatres in Scotland have all been in the same situation for a period of time. I can’t answer for Creative Scotland about why they choose to do things in that way. I absolutely understand that the pot is far from infinite. I am incredibly grateful for Creative Scotland’s support – we couldn’t do without it.

In 2012 you signed a letter criticising Creative Scotland’s practices – how they communicate with artists, their bureaucracy, and their emphasis on art as commerce. Earlier this year, they received similar criticisms and were forced to reverse several funding decisions. What’s your take on it all?

I’m not sure Creative Scotland was ever given a very clear brief about its purpose. For example, a lot of the debate about funding the arts is around funding artists, as though the point of Creative Scotland is to fund artists, which it isn’t. To my mind, the point of Creative Scotland is to make sure the citizens of Scotland are given access to the best art. A diet that solely consists of theatre made somewhere else is a bad diet. You should have work that comes from your own culture. The only way you have work from your own culture is if it’s made in Scotland. But in order to have that, you have to fund artists, if you see what I mean? If you don’t fund artists in Scotland, they will go to London or New York. We know what theatre in Scotland would look like without subsidy because that is what existed pre-1945. We would be a receiving house for touring productions from London and we would have a certain degree of popular local interest and amateur work.

The job of a funding body in Scotland is very difficult. You’re always going to come in for flack. The disbursement of resources for so many competing needs is always going to be problematic. Geography, for instance, is a huge factor now. Back in the ’90s people may not have been so bothered that funds weren’t being spread geographically. Now it’s totally understood that, for example, people are paying taxes in Dumfries and Galloway; are they getting enough art? Local authorities also used to be quite heavy supporters of the arts and that has shrunk across the country – in some places to zero.

I am very encouraged that Fiona Hyslop is developing a cultural strategy. I hope that might be a step towards being more concrete about why the arts are funded. I think there is general consensus in Scotland that the arts are important to society – I think that is cross-constitutional and across party lines. I am hopeful that we can reach a point where it is agreed that having indigenous theatre-making and publishing and dance in Scotland is important. I think there was a lot of mis-handling in the last round of funding, and Creative Scotland have accepted that.

So, funding has to stem from the idea that art has an intrinsic value over and above an economic one?

In terms of theatre, it is not commercially logical to make your work in Scotland. At the moment you let commerce be your logic, we might as well all move to New York. So, then you have to ask: why are we making art in Scotland? We are making art in Scotland because it is a moral good for society. I believe it is profoundly central to democracy that we have art and theatre produced from within the polity. So, I would build backwards from that: if producing art is a central part of the polity, how do we make sure it happens?

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