Daily Archives: May 16, 2008

David Greig’s Outlying Islands – Pitlochry Festival Theatre Programme Note, May 2008


JOYCE MCMILLAN on OUTLYING ISLANDS/ DAVID GREIG for Pitlochry Festival Theatre, April 2008

THERE’S A BEAUTIFUL UNINHABITED ISLAND off the west coast of Scotland, about to be blighted by a long-term military experiment in germ warfare.  There‘s a setting that resonates with a powerful if restrained sense of history; the date is the summer of 1939, just before the outbreak of the Second World War.  There are three strongly-etched characters caught in a web of mounting sexual tension; this writer’s plays are often full of a powerful erotic energy.  And – in the foreground – there are two British middle-class men, young naturalists recently graduated from Oxford, struggling with different understandings of their place in the world, and in their time.  Their names are Robert and John; and they are subtly divided by the same conflict of ideas – between a fierce worship of nature in all its beauty and brutality, and an innate sense that human society requires a sense of morality, decency, restraint – that was about to tear the whole of Europe apart.

That’s David Greig’s 2002 play Outlying Islands, one of the most successful ever staged by the Traverse Theatre during an Edinburgh Festival; and in all of these ways, it’s intensely typical of the work of a man who, at only 39, has already been established for more than a decade as a leader of the current generation of Scottish playwrights, and one of the most prolific and gifted of them all.  Born in Edinburgh 1969, and brought up partly in Nigeria, where his father worked for an oil company, Greig returned to Scotland in 1990 – after university in Bristol – and rapidly matured into a superb dramatic poet of the modern middle classes, both in their historic formation, and in their current dilemmas; and if his plays often feature Scottish settings and characters, their themes tend to be profoundly cosmopolitan and international, preoccupied with the fate of our global village, and our place in it.

He has written for the Traverse Theatre and the Edinburgh International Festival, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and for both National Theatres, in London and Scotland, creating powerful and popular plays ranging from The Architect (1997) to San Diego (2003), and his recent Traverse success Damascus, playing this summer in New York.  He has adapted texts ranging from Greek classics to the work of contemporary Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh; with his own company Suspect Culture, he has produced a series of cool and beautiful reflections on the lives of a generation raised in an age of individualism, from One Way Street in 1995 to 8000 Metres in 2004.  And he has also written a series of brilliant, award-winning plays for children, including the unforgettable Warsaw Ghetto drama Dr. Korczak’s Example, and his recent stunning success Yellow Moon, about two lost teenagers on the run through Scotland.

Today, David Greig’s back-catalogue already runs to almost 40 plays; he has seen them translated into dozens of languages, and performed across the world, from Scandinavia and the Americas to the Middle East and beyond.  He lives in North Queensferry with his wife and children.  But he travels often, giving workshops and encouraging new writers in some of the world’s darkest places; and bringing home fresh inspiration for a rich, responsible and lyrical writing life that – for all its success so far – has only just begun, and which seems set to make an ever-greater impact on audiences in Scotland, and beyond.

JOYCE McMILLAN is  theatre critic of The Scotsman, and also writes a political and social commentary column for the paper.  She has been a political and arts columnist, theatre critic and broadcaster for 25 years, living in Edinburgh and working for various Scottish and London-based newspapers.  She also broadcasts regularly, mainly on Radio Scotland and Radio 4, and is currently a Visiting Professor in the School of Drama  at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh.



Drawer Boy, Zarraberri and Limbo


JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE DRAWER BOY at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, and  ZARRABERRI and LIMBO at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Review 16.5.08

The Drawer Boy    4 stars ****
Zaraberri / Limbo   3 stars ***

IF THERE’S ONE TENDENCY in modern theatre that makes me fear for its future, it’s the hint of self-obsession that often creeps into the work.  Plays about theatre, and the follies of theatre-makers – or about playwrights, and the pain of play-writing –  can be dressed up as intelligent, post-modern acts of self-deconstruction; but that doesn’t make them any more interesting to the general public, or any less inclined to attract an audience entirely composed of other theatre folk, all giggling indulgently.

In theatre, though, rules are made to be broken.  Michael Healey’s beautiful three-handed drama The Drawer Boy – first seen in Canada in 1999, and now chosen by Andy Arnold for his first production as director of the Tron Theatre – is, in a way, a play about a young theatre-maker and his foolishness.  But in the end, it almost entirely transcends that theme to become an exquisite study of how the human mind copes with the pain of loss through an act of creation – that is, by constructing narratives that make it more bearable, and sometimes by developing them into complete patterns of “false memory”.

The story is set back in the early 1970’s, and is based on Healey’s true-life experience as a young actor in The Farm Show, a legendary piece of Canadian theatre created by a company of young theatre professionals who lived and worked for a while among farming communities in Ontario.  The play’s central character, a young actor called Miles, therefore finds himself living and working with Morgan and Angus, two men in their early Fifties who have been farming together since they returned from service in Europe during the Second World War.  Angus has suffered brain-damage as the result of a war injury, and has no short-term memory at all.  Morgan, his chlldhood friend and wartime comrade, cares for him, and keeps the farm ticking over; and the drama begins to unfold when a rehearsal of Miles’s play triggers something in Angus’s damaged brain, bringing painful memories back to the surface, and enabling him to reconstruct his own joined-up narrative of events, as he has not been able to do for the last 25 years.

Healey’s play enjoys itself mightily – and sometimes perhaps slightly too much – with a range of little riffs on the theme of falsehood, truth, and competing narratives.  Morgan the farmer, for example, gets his laughs by telling the gullible Miles absurd tall stories about the business of farming which Miles duly believes; Miles’s routine student-left views of world politics are mercilessly mocked, along with his actorly vanity and self-absorption.

But in Andy Arnold’s thoughtful, measured production, time comes dropping slowly enough for us also to begin to feel a true sense of the immeasurable depth of the relationship between these two men, the richness of the comfort they take from the ancient business of cultivating the earth and raising lifestock, and the care with which Morgan, in particular, has constructed a story of their lives which will protect his friend from pain.

Above all, this beautifully-cast staging of the play – with a richly atmospheric naturalistic set by Hazel Blue, and fine lighting by Sergey Jakovsky –  benefits from three wonderful performances, from Brian Ferguson as Miles, Benny Young as Morgan, and from Brian Pettifer, breathtakingly fine as Angus, a man struggling back towards a full adult sense of himself after almost three decades of enforced childishness.  And the play’s hint of an upbeat ending contradicts any sense of fashionable despair; as if Miles’s intervention has not, in the end, destroyed two fragile lives, but revealed the profound strength of these two men, and their rich capacity to reinvent themselves, one more time.

Whatever we make of this week’s double-bill at Oran Mor, meanwhile, at least there’s no question of theatrical navel-gazing in these two spiky ultra-short plays from the Play, Pie and Pint season’s sister theatre in Pamplona.  Translated from the Spanish by Chris Dolan, both Zarraberri and Limbo plunge straight into current live issues in Spanish life and politics.  In Maite Perez Larumbe’s Zarraberri, it’s the hilarious business of arts-led  regional regeneration, familiar to every city, region and community in Britain outside London.  Here, a man from the Arts Council, desperately trying to flog off a cone-shaped “landmark building” already commissioned and paid for, finds himself being taken for a sucker by a local mayor and his comely assistant, who are not above exploiting their regional identity and language – or portraying themselves as a bunch of inbred fascist yokels – in order to get the underground car-park they really want.

Meanwhile, in Limbo, Victor Iriarte ruthlessly sends up the increasing estrangement between modern Spain and the Catholic Church by showing his hero, Angel, desperately trying to negotiate his way into heaven, with the help of a pair of eternal office-workers whose efforts to send dead souls to the right destination are endlessly frustrated by idiotic management decisions, poor form-filling, and failing IT systems.

Rosie Kellagher’s twin productions occasionally struggle to hit exactly the right note of relaxed, urbane insanity; sometimes they look a shade frenzied and sketch-like.   But John Kazek, Simon Scott and the excellent Ros Sydney seem energised by the sheer, wicket wit of the two scenarios; and by the end of the week, this fine explosion of post-modern European satire should have matured into a fine 50 minutes of lunchtime hilarity, not only witty, but wise.

The Drawer Boy at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 24 May; Zarraberri and Limbo at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until tomorrow.