Tuesday, 18 June 2013

David Greig refracted (vanity 9)

To the extent that I have a list of people whom I'd like to interview one day (that's weird, isn't it? Because interviewing is weird: a very intense way of staring into someone's windows as you walk past their house; a performance of a conversation with shades of flirtation, reaching for intimacy, pulling away. Then again, a lot of the best conversations I have with people are in an interview context – today, for instance, with Ben Power, who is every type of brilliant, and last week with Tangled Feet – partly because I'm not sufficiently sociable to get myself in a position to talk to such people otherwise, partly because the framework is such a comfort to someone who feels self-conscious speaking at all), David Greig has been close to the top for years, ever since I read Leo Benedictus' brilliant piece about him in the Guardian in 2005, which was radiant with intelligence and energy and oddity. Looking back, Greig came across in that piece like a real-life Willy Wonka, his imagination taking flight in a way that made me feel very earthbound.

So I got to meet him and he was lovely: calm and smart and fun and thoughtful and very patient with me failing to stop asking questions, despite the fact that he was very close to finishing writing The Events and keen to get back to it. We talked a bit about Scottish indie pop and CrimerShow and he introduced me to Goggl, and we talked a whole lot about how writing is kind of excruciating, a masochistic torture of the critical mind.

It seems fitting that a piece constructed of so many binaries – Charlie v Willy Wonka, Charlie v Matilda, subsidised v West End theatre, good David v naughty David – should have two versions. (OK, three – but counting the one published in G2 today wrecks the symmetry.) The first is what I originally wrote, and because I was trying to cram a lot of information into 1500 words (succeedingly only in keeping it down to 2150), it makes weird leaps and fails to explain anything. The second version is an awful lot clearer on who Charlie and Willy Wonka are, and what (possibly) happens in The Events. Writing the bits explaining Charlie and the Chocolate Factory made me feel incredibly sad for people who hadn't been read it as kids. Not the worst kind of neglect, I know, but still a melancholy thing.

*

David Greig, take one:

One thing is making David Grieg feel the pressure of writing the book for the new West End musical of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory more acutely than anything else. You might assume that it's the close proximity of another Roald Dahl adaptation, Matilda, also playing in Covent Garden, which last week added four Tony awards – including one for playwright Dennis Kelly, who wrote the book – to its seven Oliviers and many rave reviews. Or, failing that, the stratospheric profile of its director, Sam “I just made a Bond movie” Mendes. But on both counts you'd be wrong. It is – and this is typical of Greig, one of theatre's knottiest thinkers – the metaphorical resonance of the story itself.

“You have to understand what Charlie's job is in the world,” he says, chewing ruminatively on a tuna salad on his lunch break from rehearsals. “It's a big treat. Very few modern narratives enter the public collective unconscious, but golden ticket, Willy Wonka, chocolate factory: these things are heard virtually every day.” Just as Charlie Bucket is lifted from his humdrum existence when he enters Willy Wonka's world of mystery and invention, so too are audiences supposed to be transported by the musical. “For some families, this is their big trip out for the year. I've had two sets of friends come down from Scotland, who put golden tickets into chocolate bars – this is their kid's present. I feel that responsibility hugely.”

It doesn't help that this is his West End baptism by fire. Now 44, Greig has spent more than two decades in subsidised theatre, making his name as a restlessly prolific writer, as happy producing musicals and work for children as he is complex political drama. The one consistency is his ability to communicate rigorous intellect with a lightness of touch: for instance, Glasgow Girls exposed the injustice of UK asylum policy in a bright musical about teenage girls; The Letter of Last Resort pondered possible responses to nuclear attack within a shifting, comic vignette; while Dunsinane, his sequel to Macbeth, took relish in the chaos of past and present peace-keeping endeavour.

You can tell how alien Greig finds the commercial world by the care with which he justifies its extravagance. “If you're going to tell the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory story, you can either tell it the Charlie Bucket way or the Willy Wonka way,” he suggests. “The Charlie Bucket way would be in a studio theatre with four actors and a ribbon. And it would be wonderful. But in the West End you've got to do it the Willy Wonka way. Willy Wonka, upon designing a chocolate nightingale that sings, isn't going to stint. He isn't going to say, 'Ooh, the budget needs trimming, does it have to be chocolate?' He's going to say: it has to be a chocolate nightingale.”

Ever since he was brought into the creative team five years ago – “It was very late on when I realised I'd got the job. They just never stopped inviting me to meetings” – Greig has had the freedom to shape the story without worrying about mechanics or money. “Sam was really clear early on that he didn't want me to design it for him. He said: 'You write the story – we'll work out how we stage it.'” Which is just as well, because Charlie's is an odd narrative of accumulating set-pieces, particularly in the second half, when one abysmal child after another is evicted from the factory: the greedy boy swallowed up by a chocolate fountain, the demanding girl sent down a rubbish chute, the children obsessed with chewing and television transmogrified by their bad habits. Each fate, says Greig, needs to be enacted on stage, “almost like a ritual”. At first he felt alarmed by these excessive desserts: “My son is very like Mike Teevee: is he going to watch it and feel punished? But once you start working on it, you realise that Dahl has identified the five aspects of a child, so every child – in fact, every person – is a little bit bossy, a little bit show-offy, a little bit greedy, and a little bit Charlie.”

Charlie represents our good side – and this is what sets him apart from Dahl's other West End star, Matilda. Greig realises critics and adults might compare the two productions, but children are much less likely to. “I can't deny that I didn't weep hot tears of jealousy at the brilliance of Dennis Kelly's work,” he admits, “but they're not competing. Matilda is a naughty girl, Charlie is a good boy: they're different.” So which one is Greig? “Charlie with a dash of Matilda,” he smiles. “There's good David and naughty David, and they both exist in my writing. In fact, when the writing is working well, there's a bit of a fight or a wrestle between them.”

It surprises him that, when his plays provoke an outcry, as they occasionally do, it's not naughty David who's responsible. Six years ago he wrote a play called Damascus, about a Scottish salesman realising his own cultural ignorance, which toured the Middle East in 2009, generating heated controversy. “I was being shouted at by a bunch of people in the city Damascus, and I had this sudden realisation, that whenever I find myself in trouble, it's always good David who got me there – not the mischievous stuff or the dark stuff. People were shouting; 'How dare you write about our city?' and a bit of me was thinking,” and he puts a comical sob in his voice, “'I just wanted to understand!'”

He was in trouble again earlier this year, over a play that hasn't even been staged yet. The Events, which he has been writing during the Charlie rehearsal and preview period, opens at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh fringe festival – but provoked an outcry three months ago when newspapers reported that it was based on the Anders Breivik murders. True, Greig travelled to Norway to interview people there about their response to the killings in Oslo and Utoya, but Breivik is just one of a number of perpetrators of violence whom Greig has spent the years since 9/11 contemplating. He has come to think of them as “lost boys”: young men, mostly, in whose faces he sees “this horrible lostness, this horrible vacuity”. Time and again, he felt unconvinced by their political justifications for violence: “I wanted to know what else was going on.”

It is this “impulse to understand” that The Events aims to interrogate. Greig sets it within a spectrum of reactions to violence and terrorism: “There's the instinct to punish, to string them up, to kill: I don't think that's very helpful. You don't want to glorify: people often have a very deep, primal, moral reaction that even speaking about that person is giving them too much attention. And I suddenly realised that the impulse to understand could be destructive as well – if you could understand something, maybe you could control it.” As a subject, he adds, “it's compelling and complicated and difficult – usually that's somewhere where a play might happen”.

Not everyone agrees with him. In March he found himself the subject of attacks on Twitter: “People around the world were saying: 'What sick bastard thought this?' It was really horrible, largely because of the weirdness: it was as if something had become attached to me,” and he flinches as though a clawed creature were embedded in his shoulder. “I wanted to email them all to say: 'You don't understand.'” When it happened again, and then a third time, he became more philosophical: “Ironically, it reflected the very same questions that the play is trying to deal with, which is: how do we speak about this? The same neurosis was manifesting itself.”

Other acts of violence have occurred while he has been writing The Events: the bombing of the Boston marathon, the stabbing of the soldier in Woolwich. After reading about the latter in the Guardian, Greig phoned the play's director, Ramin Grey, to say: “There he is again, the same boy.” Is he any closer to understanding the lost boys himself? He is scrupulous in his response: “I've spent a mad few months immersed in reading about empathy, anthropology, how humans evolved, politics. And I think there is a darkness that is part of being human that all we can do is accept. I watched The Tempest at Shakespeare's Globe recently; I saw Caliban and thought: 'Ah, it's another lost boy.' There is a brilliant line when Prospero says of him: 'This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.' Maybe that's all we've got.

“I should be 100% clear: you don't have to accept the act [of violence] at all. It's accepting that one will never understand. You can't get peace by killing the person and you can't get peace by understanding. That's the acceptance.”

In an odd way, working on The Events and Charlie simultaneously has been useful for Greig, the glamour of one an antidote to the knitty-gritty of the other. He's always worked this way, with projects overlapping; sometimes he envies playwrights who proceed more slowly. “In some ways they're the very best writers: they don't vomit forth notions but cherish and nurture something and carefully and patiently bring it to fruition. It's like Chekhov and Brecht: you get the sense Chekhov nurtured his ideas, whereas Brecht was try a bit of this, try a bit of that, collaborate with you, do a thing with that. I'm definitely that type.”

When he says collaborate, he doesn't necessarily mean in the rehearsal room. “The single most significant change in my writing,” he says, “was when I started telling stories to my kids. Before that I was a bit anxious about narrative, I think I associated it with Hollywood, it wasn't theatrical. Then I started telling my kids stories for pure pleasure; night after night these characters would develop, and I realised: they're happening because of narrative. That process of letting yourself go really excited me: trust the story and it will be all the darker, stranger and more complex for it.

“Now when I'm developing a play, I tell the story of it again and again and again, to friends, to strangers in pubs, to people I'm working with. If someone says, 'What are you working on?' I take the opportunity to to say: well, it's a story about a woman who goes through x, and then this happens. Each time I do it, I feel where it's boring, where it could be better, what gets the surprising laugh or gasp.”

Greig didn't plan on becoming a playwright: he wanted to be a director, and started writing after studying English and Drama at Bristol University only to have something to put on stage. He was living in London when he realised that he was going to write – and that, despite his soft English accent, he wasn't an “English writer”. “It was really odd and I've never truly understood it, but it was a visceral feeling that if I'm going to be a writer, I have to go back to Scotland.” Greig's extended family are from Aberdeen; he was born in Edinburgh and returned there at the age of 12, after spending a decade in Nigeria. But Greig rejects the idea that he was returning to his roots: “I'm not from there the way all of my family are. And it wasn't patriotism. I couldn't intellectualise it, it was a physical impulse: if you're going to write, you need to be standing somewhere to speak.”

He's now a visible force in Scottish theatre: he spent two years as in-house dramaturg for the National Theatre of Scotland and lingers on there “like a bad smell”; he's on the board of the Traverse in Edinburgh; and is vocal in debates around Creative Scotland and the future of arts funding. And he is thrillingly articulate on the social responsibility of theatre: not to educate, but to entertain. People – particularly young people – need: “more playfulness, more empathy, more entertainment and engagement that sees them as fully human souls, not as consumer products. It's like with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: the social responsibility is to make sure people have a really fucking good time; to let them fully realise and enjoy themselves through a piece of theatre.” As he says this, you glimpse the dash of Matilda in his Charlie: naughty David and good David united in politics and passion.

*

And take two:

There are, says playwright David Greig, two ways to stage Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: the Charlie Bucket way and the Willy Wonka way. Hopeful little Charlie is poor in resources but rich in imagination, and his way would suit a modest production in the subsidised theatres where Greig usually works: “You'd do it with four actors and a ribbon. And it would be wonderful.” But today Greig is in London's West End, working on a high-profile production funded by Warner Brothers, and directed by Sam Mendes, fresh from filming the latest Bond movie. “In the West End,” says Greig with a twinkling smile, “you've got to do it the Willy Wonka way.”

Wonka is one of literature's great showmen: unconventional, brilliant and a little bit dangerous. His factory is an alternative, magical universe in which fountains of chocolate flow from the ceiling, mysterious beings called Oompa-Loompas invent chewing gum flavoured like three-course meals, and industrious squirrels are in charge of quality control. This kind of stuff is easy to conjure up from a page – but on stage? When Greig started working on the production five years ago, he was convinced it was “impossible”. But Mendes reassured him: “Sam was really clear early on that he didn’t want me to design it for him. He said: ‘You write the story – we’ll work out how we stage it.’”

Eating lunch in an Italian restaurant during a break from rehearsals – although Charlie and the Chocolate Factory opened in preview performances nearly a month ago, it's still being tweaked day by day – Greig gives every impression of finding the West End itself an alternative, magical universe. Scottish by birth (not something you'd guess from the soft, unspecific English accent he acquired growing up in Nigeria), he usually lives in Fife, and has spent the past two decades making his name as a restlessly prolific writer, as happy producing musicals and work for children as he is complex political drama. It's the children's work, he thinks, that attracted Mendes' attention: his inventive adaptation of Tintin (2005), and Yellow Moon, a fierce story of troubled teenagers made for the National Theatre of Scotland in 2007, which transferred to New York the following year. But it took him a long time to realise that Mendes and team genuinely wanted to work with him: “They kept inviting me to meetings, but I'd think: someone else is probably working on it too. It was very late on when I thought: I've got this job.”

That's not just self-deprecation: it's more that the collaboration with Mendes, and particularly the Broadway composer-lyricist Marc Shaiman and lyricist Scott Whitman, felt unexpectedly easy and playful. “I've read so many stories about fights and rows working on Broadway, I was sort of expecting that. But it never happened. I'm not saying my bowels don't turn to water as I understand how close we are to properly opening – but as a process it was genuinely creative and actually very pleasant.”

The trickiest part has been figuring out how to deliver scenes that children who know the book expect to see enacted, “almost like a ritual”, but maintain the delight of surprise. Dahl's text is slyly gory: five children including Charlie win a competition to tour the chocolate factory, and four of them meet a grisly fate – the greedy boy is swallowed up by a chocolate fountain, the demanding girl sent down a rubbish chute, the children obsessed with chewing and television transmogrified by their bad habits. If Charlie survives unscathed, says Greig, it's because he represents our good side: “Deep down, the story is a reassurance that good will always win.”

The same is true in that other great Dahl story doing big business in the West End, Matilda: unloved by her parents, mistreated by her school headteacher, Matilda has to work hard for her happy ending. But Greig argues that Matilda isn't straightforwardly good in the way Charlie is: actually she's quite a naughty girl. He's keen to emphasise the differences between the children, because he knows that the two productions – just a few minutes apart in the West End – will be compared by critics and seen to be competing for audiences. “That's not helpful, but it's unavoidable,” he says. “I can’t deny that I didn’t weep hot tears of jealousy at the brilliance of Dennis Kelly’s work, and how wonderful a show it was. But trying to jump over a high bar isn't a bad thing. Even if you miss, it's still quite a high jump.”

He says he couldn't have written Matilda himself, feeling more of an affinity with Charlie. Specifically, he's like: “Charlie with a dash of Matilda. There’s good David and naughty David, and they both exist in my writing. In fact, when the writing is working well, there’s a bit of a fight or a wrestle between them.” Sometimes that lands Greig into trouble: as happened in 2009, when a play of his set in Damascus toured to the Middle East, and was accused of trading in cultural stereotypes. The play, also called Damascus, portrayed a Scottish salesman slowly realising the extent of his own cultural ignorance. It was intended by Greig as a satire on Western liberal misconceptions, so he was horrified when he found himself being lambasted by audiences in Syria, furious that he had dared to misrepresent their society. “I had this sudden realisation, that whenever I find myself in trouble, it’s always good David who got me there. People were shouting; ‘How dare you write about our city?’ and a bit of me was thinking,” and he puts a comical sob in his voice, “‘I just wanted to understand!’”

He got in trouble again earlier this year – this time over a new play that hasn’t even been staged yet. The Events opens at the Traverse Theatre during the Edinburgh fringe, but provoked an outcry three months ago when newspapers reported that it was based on the Anders Breivik murders. Greig quickly clarified that this was inaccurate; true, he travelled to Norway to interview people in Oslo and Utoya, but his subject isn't Breivik or other perpetrators of violence: it's the people responding to that violence. At the heart of the play are a choir, who represent the grief and anger of a community, and a woman struggling to empathise with a murderer, known only as Boy. Her journey is similar to one Greig himself has been on since 9/11, trying to understand the actions of men whose political justifications for violence have always seemed to him unconvincing. He describes these violent men as “lost boys”, seeing in their faces “this horrible lostness, this horrible vacuity”.

Other acts of violence have occurred while he has been writing The Events: the bombing of the Boston marathon, the stabbing of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich. And Greig has many questions about the way we respond to such events. “People often have a very deep, primal, moral reaction that even speaking about that person is giving them too much attention,” he says. “Then there's the instinct to punish, to string them up, to kill – I don’t think that’s very helpful. And I've started to wonder whether the instinct to understand could be destructive as well: because sometimes it's an impulse to control people.” He had a moment of insight watching The Tempest at Shakespeare's Globe recently: “Caliban is another lost boy. And there's a brilliant line when Prospero says of him: ‘This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine.’” He wonders whether people generally need to find a similar acceptance: not of violence, but the darkness within humanity that provokes it, that can never be satisfactorily punished or understood.

It seems odd that Greig should have been working on Charlie and The Events simultaneously: he jokes that he's going from “a project whose purpose is to delight thousands to a project whose purpose is to upset small numbers of people”. He's always skittered between multiple works, and sometimes envies playwrights who have more of a constant focus. “In some ways they’re the very best writers,” he says. “It’s like Chekhov and Brecht: you get the sense Chekhov nurtured his ideas, whereas Brecht was try a bit of this, try a bit of that. I’m definitely [the latter] type.”

He started writing when struggling to make his way as a director, after studying English and Drama at Bristol University. And he remains somewhat perplexed by the need he felt to be a Scottish rather than an English writer. Greig’s extended family are from Aberdeen; he was born in Edinburgh and returned there at the age of 12, after spending a decade in Nigeria. Even so, he felt no particular connection with Scotland: he simply had “a visceral feeling that if I’m going to be a writer, I have to go back to Scotland. I couldn’t intellectualise it, it was a physical impulse: if you’re going to write, you need to be standing somewhere to speak.”

He’s now a visible force in Scottish theatre, particularly vocal in debates around Creative Scotland: last year he frequently attacked the national development agency for its lack of appreciation of Scottish artists and movement towards a more corporate model of funding work project by project. There is a strong political edge in his plays, too: from the update of Macbeth, Dunsinane, which satirised modern peace-keeping efforts in the Middle East, to the musical Glasgow Girls, which exposed the vagaries of British asylum policy. But if theatre has a social responsibility, he believes, it's not to educate but to entertain. People, particularly young people, he argues, need: “more playfulness, more empathy, more entertainment and engagement that sees them as fully human souls, not as consumer products. It’s like with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: the social responsibility is to make sure people have a really fucking good time.”

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