Bringing the stage to the airwaves: David Greig's romance for our times

Mark Fisher

‘We never ask the right question of the future,” says David Greig, artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum theatre. “If you’d asked me six months ago what the big question of 2020 was going to be, I’d have been asking if the theatre would get an uplift in our Creative Scotland support and if the next season will attract an audience. Then suddenly something else comes along.”

Thanks to a question nobody thought to ask, his theatre has gone into “hibernation” for the rest of the year. “There’s not going to be anything like what we would have understood as normal theatre for some considerable time,” he says.

In his role as playwright on commission to Pitlochry Festival theatre, Greig has been thinking about a similar historical shock. His latest play, Adventures with the Painted People, is set in 86AD, when the occupying Roman army pulled out of its fort at Inchtuthil, in modern-day Perthshire. Eithne, a Pictish woman, has offered to rescue Lucius, a captured Roman officer, in return for him teaching her to write; their culture-clash romance is ticking along nicely until the order comes from Rome to withdraw.

“It’s about the encounter between a Roman and a Caledonian at a point when it seems utterly inevitable that Rome will be administrating Caledonia for 1,000 years,” he says. “Then something happens. We’re not in charge of our own stories and it’s foolish of us to think we are.”

Fittingly, the play itself has been the victim of disrupted plans. It had been due to open in Pitlochry in July, when it would have formed the centrepiece of Shades of Tay, a series of 50 art works inspired by Scotland’s longest river. Instead it is making its debut on BBC Radio 3 as part of the Culture in Quarantine season and will have to wait until next summer for its stage premiere.

Even on the radio, however, Greig and director Elizabeth Newman want to keep a sense of the theatrical. “It’s in the writing, the authorship and the density of ideas,” says Newman, walking her dog after a morning’s Zoom rehearsal with actors Kirsty Stuart and Olivier Huband. “If you think about Dennis Potter’s Brimstone and Treacle and the Play for Today series, there’s something about the way the writers use metaphor that makes them pieces of theatre rather than television. We need to keep striving to share those worlds that writers create.”

Although he’s delving into ancient history, Greig has an eye on the culture clashes of today’s globalised world. “We recognise the civilisation of Rome because it’s what western Europe is built from,” he says. “It’s roads, cities and central heating. But the civilisation of the peoples of this area at that time was equally a civilisation – it just didn’t use writing and straight roads. The encounter contains interesting tensions for now.”

“What David is talking about is so politically important,” says Newman. “It’s about what it means to be multicultural, what it means to create a culture, the difference between local and global. It’s a contradiction that sits in both of us: on the one hand I’m obsessed by growing food and having a theatre that generates a local community, on the other hand I believe internationalism helps us grow and change.”

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Greig and Newman have more than the play in common. Between them they are responsible for Scotland’s two biggest producing theatres. Newman’s concerns for Pitlochry Festival theatre, which has to generate 85% of its revenue, match Greig’s for the Royal Lyceum, which has lost more than £700,000 in ticket and trading income because of the coronavirus crisis. Both are thinking creatively. She has introduced a telephone club, in which actors chat with isolating people; he is asking 1,000 supporters to create a patchwork theatre curtain. Neither has an appetite for physically distanced theatre.

“Our job is to offer a place where people come together to explore their collective humanity,” says Newman. “We want to come into a room and feel safe. The nature of theatre is being in a room, breathing and sweating. Laughter generates laughter. Someone else crying gives you permission to cry. Covid-19 has put you at risk doing that. We will find different ways of going about it, but it will not be the same.”

“If you had to design a sector that would be worst affected by a pandemic, you would design a thing called theatre,” says Greig. “Everything about us makes us vulnerable to this crisis. But if you had to design an art form to help us come back from crisis – to console, amuse, divert, boost the economy and create connections with people – I would create theatre. We really will have a role to play when the moment comes, but it’s going to be tough getting to the other side.”