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David Greig: ‘I am not sure it is possible to make any sort of theatre in a socially distanced world.’

David Greig

David Greig

“Theatre is very much the industry not to be in during a pandemic,” says David Greig, with a shrug.

Greig lives in Scotland and, in addition to being a playwright, is artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre.

The Lyceum remains Scotland’s premier producing theatre, in terms of output and turnover. However, last month the Edinburgh theatre warned it will run out of money by November unless it starts making redundancies now, as it confirms the venue will “hibernate” until 2021.

Greig’s first original play in seven years, Adventures with the Painted People, was due to open at Pitlochry Festival Theatre this summer but has since been adapted for Radio 3 as part of the Culture in Quarantine Season.

What can audiences expect when they tune in to listen to Adventures with the Painted People? “I think the play is quite funny, actually. I also think it will cheer a lot of people up,” he says. “Not in a saccharine way, but in a way that I hope it gives audiences a long-view, so that it is difficult not to take an optimistic line.”

Adventures with the Painted People is on Radio 3 on Sunday 7 June

Adventures with the Painted People is on Radio 3 on Sunday 7 June

He describes the play as a love story: one that celebrates difference but also explores how difference can bring us together. “It is a two-hander that is inspired partly by the Roman fort at Inchtuthil, on the Tay near Dunkeld, which was built as a major fort of occupation and then abandoned after just a few years when the Romans withdrew from Caledonia.”

Everything currently requires an alternative approach, one that means us all pulling together. “We’re not going to get through this without working together. I think we have to accept that for as long as we are going to be living with this virus; we are going to be living with some kind of social distancing for an extended period of time. I am not sure it is possible to make any sort of theatre in a socially distanced world,” Greig tells me. “Certainly not revenue generating theatre.”

Touching The Void (Bristol Old Vic / West End)

Touching The Void (Bristol Old Vic / West End)

How would he describe his state of mind? “I am fine. But it is almost as if the pandemic has been deliberately constructed to hit theatre- in terms of the effects on the cultural sector,” he mulls.

“As a writer that is a bit of an issue, but as an artistic director it is much more serious. There is a responsibility that manifests itself in the sheer grind of trying to keep up with what seems to be perpetually changing parameters and circumstances and that is very, erm.” A long silence. “Stressful.”

David Greig in rehearsals

David Greig in rehearsals

Greig draws comparisons between Touching The Void – a recent acclaimed production that he adapted – based on Joe Simpson’s terrifying ordeal following a fall in the Andes and the current crisis. “Simpson said that when you are faced with a crisis you have to keep making decisions. It is the only way that you are going to survive. It does not matter if the decision is right or wrong, but you have to make choices,” Greig adds. “The harsh reality of so much uncertainty and shifting paradigms is that it can soon spiral and the danger then, in theatre’s case is that you drift into bankruptcy.”

Greig believes that theatre is facing its biggest challenge and rooted in fragile commercial structures, but that is unbeatable. “Theatre will come back – it absolutely will come back –– it has existed for over two Millenia and during that time it has faced many significant challenges,” says Greig.

He says that Regional theatres are unique places where people can come together and discuss and share thoughts and emotions. “The best regional theatres are the soul of any city,” he says.
Unique in what way? “ For fifteen or so years regional theatre in Britain has faced decreasing resources and shrinking government subsidy. Yet regional theatres have increasingly found inventive ways to survive and thrive.”

“But this pandemic has struck them at the knee. My question would be: will someone build them back up again when this is all over?”
Adventures with the Painted People is broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 7.30pm on 7 June. It is scheduled to play at Pitlochry Festival theatre in 2021