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David Greig

Prolific playwright David Greig has a varied catalogue of work, ranging from the recently revived Europe to West End hit Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and his acclaimed adaptation of Touching the Void. He is also Artistic Director of Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre.

Greig's first original play in seven years, Adventures with the Painted People, was due to begin its run in Edinburgh this summer, but has since been adapted for radio due to the pandemic. The writer spoke with BroadwayWorld about his creative process, the future of theatre and his latest work.

What is your earliest memory of theatre?

I'm pretty sure it was a pantomime at the King's Theatre in Edinburgh. Probably in 1975, and I think it was The Owl and the Pussycat - something by Edward Lear. I remember it because from the stage the actors were asking how were they going to eat their peas with a runcible spoon and I shouted out "Use honey!". My accent, even as a young lad in Edinburgh, wasn't really very Scottish and so this little six year old calling 'Honey!' was absolute fodder for the actors, who very enjoyably had me as the butt all the way throughout the rest of the show. I was absolutely thrilled by this though.

I was brought up in Africa, so going to the theatre wasn't really a part of life for us in a country town in the north of Nigeria. But I did make shows and plays with my friend constantly. We made comedy and drama and we would perform. But panto at Edinburgh was my first experience of seeing professional theatre.

When did writing itself come into your life, and when did you realise it was something you wanted do for a living?

I joined Edinburgh Youth Theatre as a teenager and I immediately felt more at home there than I ever had at school. I went to an all boys school and I didn't really feel quite part of that. So I did a bit of acting and I did a bit of singing, but I knew I wasn't going to be an actor because I was absolutely terrible. Of course, some of these people I was with have gone onto great things. Steven McNicoll, for example, is one of the stalwarts of the Lyceum stage [Edinburgh], so I knew what good acting was and I could see who would go on to do well - and that I was not one of them.

So I then applied to do Drama at University, and it was in my mind that I'd either be an academic who studied this subject or I would be a writer or director. At one point, I ended up writing mostly in order to be able to direct shows, actually. I just wanted to be in the world of theatre. I knew it was a world I belonged in. I just had to find my place in it. I wasn't very good at any of the other key jobs, so I found writing by a process of elimination.

In terms of when I knew I wanted to make my living in writing, I was actually reflecting on this the other day. I never expected I would, to be truthful. I was imagining that I might be involved in a theatre collective of some type and had visions of us touring community centres or prisons and doing shows. I said to myself, if I can't make a living from theatre by the time I'm 30, then I'll give up and do something else. I was very fortunate in that my writing got picked up quite quickly, so I was able to make a living when I was a lot younger than that - albeit a quite precarious one until recent years.

If the writing hadn't worked out, do you have any idea what you might be doing?

No. The world of theatre was the only one that interested me. Without theatre, I think I would have ended up just being a bad poet.

Are there any writers who influence or inspire you at all?

It's funny - I never really got Chekhov at university. I got Ibsen and really liked him. I liked Brecht very much. I was hugely influenced by Howard Barker. All of those writers, they go against Chekhov. All of those writers have a theory about the world. They have politics. They try and show you something, tell you something. I think a lot of my writing was really shaped and influenced by that throughout my career.

Recently, I've fallen very deeply in love with Chekhov. It began for me with a show called The Present, which I saw, directed by John Crowley and starring Cate Blanchett. It was an adaptation of Chekhov's early play Platonov, written by Andrew Upton who ran Sydney Theatre Company. I remember that feeling, which I get with every Chekhov play. In Act I, I find myself thinking, oh well these are quite interesting characters, but it's all a bit surface and trivial. In Act II, you go, to be fair these characters seem to have a little bit of depth, but it's still quite trivial business. In Act III you go, I love these characters. In Act IV "oh let them be all right", and in Act V you're in floods of tears about humanity and all its weaknesses and flaws, beauty and grace.

I watched that performance of The Present and it hit me like a sledgehammer. That began this recent little journey of enjoying Chekhov. Bristol Old Vic also did a great version of The Cherry Orchard a couple of years ago.

This newfound love of Chekhov might partially be to do with age. As a young person, you're looking for theory and answers and approaches to the world and people who really have something to say, but then you reach this point where not having anything specific to say or not having answers doesn't matter as long as the question is framed so beautifully. It's odd, though, because Chekhov was not old. He wrote as a young man, so where he got that level of depth from is miraculous to me and it's certainly a depth of perception that I can only aspire to.

Does having such an established name within the field bring with it a degree of pressure each time you come to write a new play? How much attention do you pay to reviews?

I'm very lucky because I don't value my work or career in that way. Increasingly, my work goes on in the Lyceum or a theatre we're partnered with, so there is a different sort of pressure. But the pressure when Solaris opened in Australia and then came to Edinburgh was more about whether it would go well for the company or not. Whether it would go well for me or not was not terribly important. In general terms, I know this might sound odd, but I don't go around thinking as I walk down the streets of my little village, 'I'm David Greig, top playwright'. When I sit down to write, I think along the lines of, God...maybe this time you can do something of value. Maybe this time I can get it right.

Whilst I've had work that has gone very well for me and that I've been very proud of, I've never really had a hit, which might sound an odd thing to say. My work has grown and built and I'm lucky that, over time, people have asked me to do work to such an extent where I now have a relationship with audiences. I've had successful shows, but I've never had an out-and-out hit. If you look at my compadres from back in the 1990s, Shopping and Fucking by Mark Ravenhill was unquestionably a hit. It went to the West End and ran. You might say the same with Jez Butterworth and Jerusalem or even Mojo. I've never had that. Partly because Scotland isn't enormously well placed to create hits in terms of the size of the country and the theatre industry here.

Touching the Void is probably the closest I've had. It went to the West End and had great reviews and audiences liked it. But Touching the Void was an adaptation. I count myself lucky that I've always had work. I've never had something where the audience have in their mind, oh he's the guy who did that thing... They've vaguely come to know me as person who writes a variety of different things, and that's a nice position to be in as a writer because I never feel like the audience are looking over my shoulder.

Of course, as Artistic Director I read all of the reviews of the shows that we do and I take them very seriously. I increasingly value the work of critics, and I think another of the unheralded crisis of lockdown is that one of the things we may lose in all of this - along with so much of the work - is the work of the critics as interpreters, recorders, storytellers of our industry. I say that because my primary relationship as a writer has always been to remember until my dying day the bad reviews. I'm afraid I genuinely don't remember any of the good ones.

My mother sent a little package the other day she found of my reviews from my first play Europe at the Traverse. They were really positive actually and they say things like "destined to be a playwright to watch out for". If you'd asked me about the reviews at the time, I'd have said I remember them being mediocre. One reviewer did say it was sophomoric. It's an American word and I had to look it up, and it effectively meant pretentious and callow. The other one I remember is something along the lines of "as the end of the interval approached for San Diego I thought dear sweet merciful Jesus don't make me go back in there". But I do very much appreciate reviews as an Artistic Director. We are an ephemeral medium by our nature, so the only thing that gives us presence in the culture is people who write about us.

Tell us about your writing process. Do you approach each project in the same way?

Each project is different, but there is an essential similarity, which is the moment where I realise something is going to have to be a play. With an adaptation that comes when you decide to do it. You're attracted by this book or someone commissions you or whatever it is. But with a play of my own, usually I've been interested in something for a long period of time and there's a sudden moment when I realise this is actually going to be a play. That was the case with Painted People. There was a long period of interest that I had just as a hobby in the area of ancient Scottish and Roman encounters. Then when Elizabeth Newman [Artistic Director of Pitlochry Festival Theatre] and I spoke, I thought, we have something here. That's how all of my projects begin.

Then I do something which is very odd. I start to ask myself some questions about the play. I usually begin with: how would W.S. Graham write this? He's a Scottish poet who lived in Cornwall most of his life and wrote slightly strange and beautiful modernist poetry in the 1940s, 50s and 60s. He has this beautiful ability of looking at an idea from the other side. It's hard to explain. It's as if his poems know they are poems somehow and they speak to you in this very peculiar way. So that was very helpful with Touching the Void. W.S. Graham would write it from the mountain's point of view. It's never the way you would think. When I can properly get the answer to that question, the play then begins to slowly unroll.

Then there is a long and very fruitful and enjoyable period where I write fragments of the play. Very often I need a director from the start. Increasingly, all my plays are deep collaborations with directors, because I need this long back and forth. So with Tom Morris on Touching the Void and Elizabeth on Painted People, there's a constant dialogue.

It's really enjoyable for me, but I think really painful for the directors, who spend a lot of time saying, yes I love the fragments, but you said there'd be a first draft by now and we're starting to sell tickets... This is the last part of the conundrum. Unfortunately, it seems I'm not able to seriously put pen to paper and actually write the play until tickets are on sale. Essentially, I can't really write until the cost of me not writing something is more than the cost of me writing something shit.

Now, unfortunately, the more established one is as a playwright, the cost of not writing something versus writing something shit balance kind of goes in favour of not writing something because hey, what have you got to lose and prove? Will the world really care if there isn't another David Greig play? Probably not very much. So isn't it better to just leave it rather than adding a shit one to the pile? So although the dialogue with the director is always really fun, there's also this fear of committing. If you put tickets on sale, then there comes this realisation that at some point the actors will have to go on even writing something that isn't very good is going to be better than not writing. Weirdly, that allows me to unlock and write, and in the grip of that panic I somehow manage to produce something.

One of my favourite images in Touching the Void is when Joe Simpson is on a ledge halfway down a crevasse. He's broken his leg and is all but dead, effectively. He really has no right to be alive at all. In essence, he's in his grave. He realises he can't go up and he can't go along so he must go down. But down is just this dark abyss. It could lead him further into his grave, but it's the only thing he can do. So he attaches a rope and begins to climb down, and what he notes in his book is, there's a particular tool that climbers use to climb back up a rope - and he doesn't take it. He's got it, but he doesn't take it.

The point he's making is, I am going to go down, because that is the only direction I can go and I'm not coming back whatever happens. I am committing. He's very lucky. He finds the bottom. But as a writing metaphor, I need to reach the point where I'm genuinely on the edge. I leave that tool behind and go into the abyss in hope of finding my way out. As my wife points out, I always do find my way out. But I have to reach that point of despair before I can write. I'm not one of those who get up and write for three hours until I've done a thousand words and then have a celebratory gin and tonic. I'm not that writer.

But are you the type of writer who carries a pen and pad around waiting for inspiration to strike, or do you actively go looking for stories?

One of the reasons I'm an Artistic Director is because I'm constantly questioning, could there be a play in this or that? The world is full of stories and I'm really interested in them. My ability to keep up with that is almost by the by. That's often why I need a director. If it was up to me, I'd just keep having ideas and not having any way of separating which ones should come into existence or not. I need a director to say, I care about this idea, let's make this happen. I need someone to sort of birth it.

Once a play is in the director's hands, how much creative input do you generally make during the rehearsal process? Is it hard to let go of the baby, as it were, or do you fully embrace other creatives taking the reins?

It's never really been like that. My plays are constantly evolving. On Solaris with Matthew Lutton, we worked and worked and changed it again for Edinburgh. The play is a collaboration and often isn't finished until after its first run in front of an audience - and of course the actors are involved in that stage too. For me, what I love and adore is the rehearsal room where everyone comes together and brings something, and I'm able to improve it and make it better and better.

Have you ever experienced writer's block or struggled to find inspiration?

Writer's block is fascinating. In some ways, I don't buy it. I suppose I do, but my definition of it is that for some reason you don't want to write and you need to work out why. I think writer's block is often a voice in the writer's head which imagines that a play by David Greig must come into existence otherwise terrible things will happen in the world. Unless the tickets are on sale, I'm not able to write anyway, and I'm very privileged that I'm able to be in the position professionally where I can get the tickets on sale without having the play even finished!

Have you ever abandoned a project halfway through? Or do you ever revisit old ideas or even scripts and rework them?

I have a lot of plays that have never been written or they just haven't been written yet. There are plays that sometimes morph into other plays, but mostly they are just waiting to exist. I have plays that have been waiting for 10 or even 15 years that I'm very confident will exist, but they just haven't found their moment yet. One of the things in lockdown that's been on my mind is that this could be a good chance to look at old plays and see what I can do with them.

Has lockdown in any way fuelled your creativity or has it hindered it?

I didn't realise how much of my writing took place in cafes. They provide me with just the right amount of distraction. I'm very good at tuning in from distraction. In a silent room I can be maddened by a tiny buzz, but in a busy room I can focus.

Trying to run a theatre when the entire industry across the world has collapsed over night is not very conducive to creative thought. There's a constant grinding worry. There's also a sort of distracted creativity that isn't very helpful. What if I made a film? What if I become a novelist?

As a writer, you can give me a set of parameters and I will find you an answer. But if you can't give me parameters then I find it very wearing. Our industry has been struck with such uncertainty.

Local Hero was due to be performed at the Old Vic this summer. I think many assume such iconic venues will always be around and always be OK, but the Old Vic as well as the National are two very high-profile theatres in serious danger. Speaking as an Artistic Director, how do you see theatre bouncing back from this?

We have to hold two concurrent thoughts and work from there. Thought number one is that theatre will come back without any doubt at all. It's like saying we're worried about the restaurant industry, but we're not worried about food. Theatre will exist. We've been through pandemics that killed 50% of the population and theatre survived. We know that in the end people like to come together in a room and they like that so much that they will find a way of doing it. We have to remember there will come a point where this is over.

However, we have to hold the other thought: we do not know when that will be and we can't make a solid prediction. All evidence tells us that when theatres have been closed for a period of time, it takes time for audiences to come back and build up again. The world we're returning to is going to have to be different.

The way we are going to get through this is by making a plan that accepts the situation we're in right now. We are going to have to survive for an indefinite but hopefully short period of time. We're going to need major Government support, but also need the industry to come up with a plan and work together and ask, what do we do? How do we survive? Do we support writers to write in other mediums? Do we offer commissions for plays that we know won't go on for a while? How do we support artists?

At the same time, we have to hold in our head that this is not a moment at which we abandon faith in theatre. It would be a great mistake to say theatre is dead. I know theatre will come back. I believe that the theatre industry in the United Kingdom and the people who make theatre at every level - whether it's regional or London - it is an incredibly brilliant diverse and strong ecology. It won't come back the same as it was on 16 March. We have to accept that and grieve it. But what will emerge, bit by bit, carefully like shoots rising from the ground may well be better, equally good, different and indeed could actually end up making what was in the past look old-fashioned. We may even return to a pure almost back-to-basics type of theatre when we come back.

Maybe it's OK for a while to spend some time genuinely missing our art form. Not trying to replace it or do second best, but spending a moment really dealing with the loss of what it is that we value. When we do come back, we won't take any of it for granted. It's going to be brutal for the industry, but the art form beneath that industry will come back and be appreciated even more.

What was the inspiration behind Adventures with the Painted People, and what can you tell us about the play?

For quite a long time now, I've been interested in the deep past of my particular corner of Scotland. I was particularly interested in this strange fact that nothing is written about Scotland until the Romans came. So, strangely, Scotland exists in a kind of darkness until we get these glimpses of what Romans wrote, which is very limited. It's all from the point of view of 'who are these strange savages who are able to live up to their waist in water?' I know Scotland is rainy, but that's a harsh view!

Anyway, I was always curious about what might lie behind this. I wasn't thinking of it being a play, but Elizabeth was doing a project about the River Tay to celebrate the anniversary of Pitlochry Festival Theatre, which is on the river, and to draw attention to the landscape surrounding it.

I recalled the furthest north a major Roman fort was built was close to the theatre. I did some investigating and discovered that the fort had been built and existed for two years before the Legion that were based there withdrew and returned to England. No one knows why. All we know is that Scotland was completely conquered and this major fort was built for around 5,000 people. To put it in context, in any place within the empire where one of these forts was built, they have since become cities. In a weird way, I thought had it not been for this strange withdraw that took place, there could be a very different history for Scotland. That almost whimsical decision is the shaping event of the whole history of this area.

When Elizabeth mentioned her project, I thought this could become a play. I had a notion about a Caledonian and a Roman encountering one another and what they might have to say to each other and how they might interrelate. That seemed interesting and set us off on a journey which became Painted People. The Caledonian is a woman who comes from a small place near the river and she has kidnapped a Roman officer. She wants to learn how to be Roman so she can go and negotiate with the local governors. It's a kind of bizarre Educating Rita set in AD85. It's set against an empire hitting its furthest limit point and meeting resistance, but the form of the play is almost romantic comedy. It's not a comedy, but there are a lot of comic elements.

It's now been adapted for radio due to the current circumstances. What challenges did this bring? How much did you have to change the script?

The script wasn't written anyway. Although it was due to open this summer, the writing was still quite underdeveloped. When the call came to make it a radio play in three weeks, I thought, OK, I can do that. It was a good deadline.

Usually when I write radio plays, they're quite fantastical. I love that in radio you can have an army of a thousand or a dragon or something. This play was always conceived to be a two-hander in a 500-seat theatre. That is still the case. I didn't make it test the limits of radio. At the same time, I do think it was quite fun and easy to make it work for the medium. One of the difficulties of staging a play set in the past is ensuring a person looks AD85 enough, for example. There's always a little suspension of disbelief. On the radio, it's in your head, so it's even better than film. You can really conjure AD85 and it feels real. I hope we get some benefit, although at its heart I feel it is still a stage play.

So in the absence of visuals, are you saying writing for radio is actually easier than for the stage?

It's much easier. More than any other form, radio is utterly free and unlimited. This is one of the great joys of writing for it. I did take some advantage of it and there are some bits I'll have to change when we put it on stage.

Finally, if you had to sell Adventures with he Painted People to us in just a sentence or two, what would it be?

When I was working on it, Elizabeth and I did find it helpful to refer to it as Educating Rita set in AD85 - not that I'm comparing it to that play. It's about an encounter between two very different people who learn from one another. It's a funny but I hope also tender and thoughtful story.

Adventures with the Painted People premieres on BBC Radio 3 as part of their Culture in Quarantine Season on 7 June

Photo credit: Aly Wight

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