As his worldwide hit returns to London, playwright David Greig talks to Matthew Amer about dancing lobsters and why Midsummer is not a musical.
There is an odd thing about Edinburgh Festival successes; while they may be heralded each year north of the border, few of them ever make an impression in London. Something is lost in translation as they leave the craziness of the annual arts extravaganza behind and journey south into the real world.
There are, of course, exceptions. Most recently the National Theatre Of Scotland’s Black Watch has proved both popular and acclaimed wherever it has toured, and is currently enjoying its second stint at the Barbican theatre.
Then there is Midsummer, David Greig and Gordon McIntyre’s play with songs. The two-handed romantic comedy about two thirtysomethings who meet in an Edinburgh bar one midsummer’s weekend has proved popular both in London, where it returns this week for a season at the Tricycle theatre, and worldwide.
When I grab a quick phone call with Greig, he is on the far side of the Atlantic, where Midsummer has just played in Washington to a rapturous reception. New productions of it have been staged in Germany, Korea, Portugal and Norway, and, when it finishes its run at the Tricycle theatre in January, the original production will make its way to Australia. “Not to do down the rest of my career,” Greig sighs, “but it has been a very unusual show.”
It is not that Greig has not had success before. He has, in fact, been fairly prolific, writing everything from translations and new versions of classic texts to children’s shows, from original tales to devised work. While it has taken until the last five years of his 20-year career for him to make a real impact on the London stage – with productions including Dunsinane, Peter Pan, Creditors, The Bacchae, Damascus, Herge’s Adventures Of Tintin and Miniskirts Of Kabul as part of the Tricycle’s The Great Game season – Midsummer has stepped that success up a notch.
Greig is not entirely sure why: “Our whole idea for the show was to do exactly what we wanted. That’s why I directed it, why we did everything very low budget indeed. I had no sense then that it would be anything other than a fun project. I think maybe, when completely released like that, when the pressure’s totally off, surprising things happen. The pleasure we had in making it and the pleasure the actors had in making it, maybe that somehow embedded itself.”
“If a musical has a chorus line, we have dancing lobsters”
“I did know in the second week of rehearsals,” he continues. “I thought ‘This is a very special thing, something very special has happened.’ Thereafter I felt that my job as the director was to try and just look after it and protect it.”
Midsummer was created in 2008 by Greig and McIntyre, the songwriter for Edinburgh indie band Ballboy, along with actors Matthew Pidgeon and Cora Bissett, and designer Georgia McGuinness; a team Greig sincerely refers to as a family. Pidgeon and Bissett, he says, “have that thing, chemistry. I just love seeing them on stage together”.
But what, I wonder, of Midsummer’s intriguing subtitle, ‘A Play With Songs’. Why not stop the quibbling and call it a musical? “I could be really specific,” Greig replies. “Most musicals I know have about 20 numbers in them and we’ve got six.” More influential was the feel and atmosphere they wanted for the piece: “Whatever a musical did, we would do a low-fi version of it. In a musical you have an orchestra; we have two actors playing their acoustic guitars. If a musical has a chorus line, we have dancing lobsters. If a musical has a cast of thousands, we have a cast of two. The musical has a wonderful set that changes every 10 minutes; we have a wonderful set that stays exactly the same.”
Greig revels in the organic, low budget, thrown together nature of his show. Of course, if its magic was created by that lack of pressure, like Narnia, he will never be able to find it the same way again. “You can never trick your brain twice,” he says, and, I imagine, gives a wry smile. “The next time I say ‘Let’s just do something little’, my brain will be going ‘Yeah, it better be as good as the last one.’”
Living up to expectations cannot be a worry that lays heavy on Greig’s mind; he is in America not just because of Midsummer, or even because the Tricycle’s Afghanistan-themed series of plays The Great Game is playing stateside at the moment – “apparently they’re going to tour it to the Pentagon so all the top American military brass can see a performance of it” – but because he is writing the book for a Charlie And The Chocolate Factory musical. Anyone taking on the task of bringing one of Roald Dahl’s most popular children’s stories to the stage cannot be concerned about facing a challenge or weight of expectation.
“I just drifted into being a writer”
Even in the creation of Midsummer he chose to steer clear of the easy option. “I set myself problems,” he explains, “problems that I didn’t know how I was going to solve as a director.”
Back when Greig was an eager student with his eyes set firmly on a life in the arts, it was as a director that he saw his future. The harsh reality, he found, was that it was particularly hard to get a directing gig. Even after writing his own pieces so that he had plays to direct, he found professional directors and theatres wanted his plays but not his directorial hand. “So I just drifted into being a writer.”
The creation of Midsummer has actually given Greig an insight into what the directors who work with him have put up with over the years. “I discovered what a pain in the arse I am to work with as a writer,” he laughs. “I think other directors will get a better writer now when they deal with me because I know how frustrating it is when I don’t deliver on deadline and I know how frustrating my constant desire to tinker with small aspects of the script when there are really major bits of work to be done is.”
Those directors, then, may be in for a treat, as Greig’s writing and profile had already taken a step forward. The rise in his prominence in the London theatre scene has coincided with a shift in the way he approaches his writing. In his early career Greig took on a wide variety of projects, from “avant garde devised work” with his own company Suspect Culture to “serious grown up plays” for the Traverse theatre and children’s work. “About five years ago,” he explains, “I started really focusing on just telling stories in the most energetic way. Then something just flowered in me. That’s the thread that now links everything together; it feels slightly less disparate than it used to.”
London, he says, will probably have to wait a couple more years before it is entertained by Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, though he will be working once more with the National Theatre of Scotland – “a really terrific institution” – in the new year. His previous collaborations with the company, The Bacchae and Peter Pan, have both made their way south. Greig fans may also see the playwright’s work on the big screen if his adaptation of novel A Complicated Kindness is filmed. It is, he says, “fingers crossed and touch wood, very close to production”.
Yet I would not be surprised if, after making an impression in Oz, Midsummer were to make its way back to London once more. “This little story from Edinburgh,” Greig says with a touch of pride in his voice, “seems to have communicated to people in Vancouver and London and all across the world. That’s really weird, but wonderful; what an amazing thing. I find it bewildering but also really exciting.”