Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

The Theatre of David Greig

Theatre Writer Book

Clare Wallace , Methuen Drama , June-16-15
Theatre Writer Book by Clare Wallace Rhodri Morgan, at the time of his stepping down, enjoyed the highest popularity rating ever recorded for a democratic leader. Everything comes back, he said in his farewell lecture at the Wales Political Archive, to the facts of geography, the arc of population around the rural heart of the Cambrians and Powys. For politics it carries the overhead of so many local authorities- “nine councils within a twenty-minute drive..?” wonders the CEO of the only Welsh company in the FTSE 100 with a shake of the head in bemusement. But for culture it is no bad thing. It means diversity and vitality. But it is not good for new writing.

New writing for theatre is an urban thing. If theatre, outside pantomime and Andrew L-W, is a minority taste new writing is a minority’s minority. It needs the urban scale to provide the audience of persistence and regularity. Wales, as is increasingly apparent, is not Scotland and “the Theatre of David Greig” is a reminder. Hardly a theatre company exists north of the Tay- a review of Stornoway’s company features on this site October 2007- but the urban concentration is good for new writing.

A late section of “the Theatre of David Greig” comprises eighteen pages of transcribed conversation between Greig and Clare Wallace. He touches on the geography of his audience. The Central Belt has a population larger than that of the whole of Wales yet the writer says of his audience “there is a group”, the number probably closer to the hundreds than the thousands. His “Dunsinane”, with all the profile of a RSC production, was seen by just eight hundred Scots. And the venues of Scotland do not have competition in the form of a nearby Bristol or Bath or day trips even to Barbican or Royal Court.

This setting of Greig’s place of work is not to undervalue the achievement or artistry. The fifty plus productions over twenty years outnumber any other writer working in Britain. Those that have played in Wales, and feature on this site, include “the Events” (March 2014), “Yellow Moon” (June 2008) and “the Speculator” (March 2009). Clare Wallace addresses this huge corpus of work by grouping it into five chapters “Suspect Culture”, “Lesson Plays”, “Scotland”, “Globalisation” and “East-West.”

The most salient aspect of Grieg’s achievement is its breadth. “Midsummer” (reviewed here January 2011) is a hymn of love to his own city while “Damascus” (reviewed here August 2007) was unique as a contemporary play that toured six Arab countries. Its director Philip Howard features in the book and recalls that in Cairo it was a huge hit with “queues of audiences and rapturous reception.”

The book’s title is “the Theatre of David Greig” rather than “the Plays of David Greig”. The trajectory of the career begins with the founding of a company “Suspect Culture” with Graham Eatough in 1992. Three years’ graft follow before public funding in 1995. In 1997 Greig is a vocal contributor at David Edgar’s Birmingham Theatre Conference. “Victoria” in 2000 is an RSC production set over three time periods- 1936, 1974 and 1996- and comprising seventy-two scenes. In the Middle East he works with George Ibrahim at Ramalla’s al Kasaba Theatre along with British director Rufus Norris. (The sparky adaptation of “Adventures of Tintin” as a Barbican Christmas show does not get mention but then there is simply too much to cover.)

Outside Clare Wallace’s core narrative “the Theatre of David Greig” has a section “Perspectives” with two additional essays and contributions from collaborators. David Pattie in “Who's Scotland?” looks to the links with predecessors Sir David Lyndsay, John Byrne, Chris Hannan, John Clifford and Liz Lochhead. Philip Howard cites his fondest memory “sitting in the cafe of a three star Damascene hotel negotiating amendments to the play...including the scene in the play where Paul sits in a the cafe of a three star Damascene hotel negotiating amendments to his education textbook.”

Vicky Featherstone and Guy Hollands, Artistic Director of the Citizens 2006-11, both feature. “David is a harvester. He harvests stories, experiences, people, moments”. “David's writing seems to me as much a provocation or opening out of ideas as an instruction.” Wils Wilson, collaborator on “Gobbo” and “the Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart”, homes in on the musicality of the language. “His work also has a musical or rhythmic awareness in terms of form. It's one of the things that enables him to be very bold in the structure of how he tells stories.”

“The Theatre of David Greig” is not the definitive assessment of David Greig, partly because he is still in full creative flow. The author is Associate Professor at Charles University, Prague. That entails nods to Adorno and Lehmann (Hans-Thies naturally rather than the brilliant author of “the Sweet Smell of Success.”) The use of alarming vocabulary is rare although “Yellow Moon” is possessed of a “heterodiegetic narrative commentary.”

There is the odd jarring piece of language as in a play described as “an ecologically calibrated epic”. It is the wrong verb. A commentary on “Casanova” sees “insistence on the never-ending pursuit of pleasure for its own sake constitutes a kind of radical “nowness” that is in obvious tension with traditional constructions of identity”. As a view it marries a hazy neologism and a clunkiness of construction with a weakness of argument. “Identities are always plural” opines a commentator. True, that “s” at the end is a giveaway.

The quality of the proof-reading is much better than average for the publishing industry of our century. Nonetheless that a publisher like Bloomsbury can print “principle trajectories” on page three says it all. The source book for “the Speculator” was written by the admirable James Buchan. James Buchanan by contrast was the United States’ fifteenth president.

Greig makes mention of “A Pie, A Pint and a Play” as “brilliant for a writer.” Returning to the environment in Wales these last six months have hit a high. Not just a new venue but “Violence and Son” and “T eh Internet is Serious Business” have received universal acclaim, even from London’s most expected sourpusses of reviewers. These achievements owe more to sheer personal indomitability and conviction of the playwrights than to an orderly and stable funded new writing scene at home.

The Investment Review may have hard and unpalatable choices to make. Suffice to say that new writing matters. If there has to be heritage theatre then the Tourist Board should cough up the budget. Cardiff as of 2015 has the venue and the production team. An author of Wales at the Royal Court ought to be more than an occasional welcome surprise.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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