JOYCE MCMILLAN on DAVID GREIG AND PYRENEES for Pitlochry Festival Theatre, May 2015
ON THE BALCONY OF a small guest house in the Pyrenees, a man sits and gazes at the view. He has no idea who he is, no memory of anything before the moment when he was found lying in the snow, somewhere along the nearby pilgrim’s way to Santiago de Compostela. The man speaks English and seems to be British, so a young woman from the British consulate in Marseilles has come to interview him, to try to establish his origins; and so begins David Greig’s Pyrenees, a beautiful, witty and enigmatic play about identity, masculinity, and midlife crisis, first seen in Glasgow in 2005, and now given its first UK revival as part of Pitlochry’s 2015 summer season.
It’s 23 years, now, since David Greig’s first play, Stalinland, made its debut appearance on the Edinburgh Fringe; and in that time, Greig has established himself not only as the undisputed leader of the current generation of Scottish playwrights, but as an internationally-recognised writer, mentor, and voice for theatremakers everywhere. Greig was born in Edinburgh in 1969, spent most of his childhood in Nigeria where his father worked for an oil company, studied drama at Bristol, and rapidly emerged, during the 1990’s, as a hugely significant new voice among the rising generation of playwrights, both at the Traverse Theatre, and with his own company, Suspect Culture, which he founded with director Graham Eatough back in 1990.
In the seven years since a David Greig play last appeared at Pitlochry – Outlying Islands, in 2008 – Greig has produced new work that ranges from the National Theatre of Scotland’s smash-hit pub show The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart, through a major new West End version of Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, to The Events, a remarkable music-based meditation on violence, inspired by the horrific Anders Breivik killings in Norway. And during last year’s Scottish referendum campaign, David Greig became one of the key creative voices of the “yes” movement, inventing new forms of writing – including a year-long series of 140-character twitter plays, The Yes-No Plays – to capture the creative possibilities of the moment, while always recognising the strength and depth of feeling on both sides of the referendum question.
It remains true, though, that Greig’s formative moments as a playwright came at the turn of the 1990’s, when the fall of the Berlin Wall seemed to break down international barriers on an unprecedented scale, and to make us all citizens of a new and more open world. Although Pyrenees was not written until 2005, it is in some ways the sequel to Greig’s earlier 1999 play The Cosmonaut’s Last Message To The Woman He Once Loved In The Former Soviet Union, a play about the strange web of connection that binds characters in Scotland, London, France, Norway and beyond, to a pair of abandoned Soviet cosmonauts forever stranded in their space capsule, high above the earth.
Both plays were commissioned and directed by Vicky Featherstone for the Paines Plough company, before she became the founding director of the National Theatre of Scotland. Both feature the same central characters, a middle-aged, middle-class Edinburgh couple called Keith and Vivienne; Pyrenees is dedicated to the memory of the fine Scottish actress Morag Hood, who played Vivienne in 1999, and died in 2002. And both plays demonstrate David Greig’s extraordinary power to take the everyday stuff of western middle-class life, and place it in a much wider context of global crisis, and profound change in our ways of seeing the world.
Later this year, David Greig and Graham Eatough will revive their old Suspect Culture partnership to create a new stage version of Alasdair Gray’s great novel Lanark, for the 2015 Edinburgh International Festival. It seems right that David Greig should be the first Scottish playwright commissioned by the festival’s new director, Fergus Linehan; and certain that whatever changes shake the Scottish and global scene in the coming decade, David Greig will be there to help us reflect on them, as a citizen playwright who takes his responsibilities seriously, but never loses touch with the twin saving graces of humour and poetry that lift his plays from the page, and have already won them a very special place in the imagination of our time, in Scotland, and far beyond.