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David Greig On ... The Middle East, Scotland & Belonging

Edinburgh-born playwright David Greig has had a prolific and varied career. Amongst his burgeoning body of work, he’s written several plays for the Traverse Theatre, Scotland’s largest new writing theatre, including Midsummer, The Speculator, Danny 306+Me Forever, The Architect, and Europe. His other work includes Pyrenees, written for Paines Plough, and The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union and a version of Caligula for the Donmar Warehouse. Following Fringe First-winning success at the Traverse during the 2007 Edinburgh Festival and a New York run, Greig’s Damascus has made transferred to London’s Tricycle Theatre, where the original company reprises their roles, ahead of an international tour.

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Damascus is a play about a Scottish man, Paul, who finds himself selling English Language teaching textbooks in the Middle East. The play follows Paul's encounter with the city of Damascus, and in particular with a Syrian woman called Muna. Essentially it’s a comedy of cultural confusion, but in fact, it actually becomes a slightly deeper exploration of language and culture. It does have a very dark side to it.

When I work with director Philip Howard, as I am with Damascus, I play quite a large part in rehearsals. He likes to have the writer around. With this play I’ve been tweaking it for the international tour in the light of the experience we had with it both in Edinburgh, and a year ago when we took it to New York. I think we’ve learned a lot of things about the play that both Philip and I wanted to try to improve.

To a certain degree, people write about what they experience and most British playwrights don’t experience the Middle East so we don't have a great deal of plays that are set there. Also there isn’t a great tradition of playwriting in the Middle East itself, so we can’t get hold of those plays and stage them here either. I have spent quite a long time over the last five years or so working with young writers and playwrights in Arab countries. I suppose I ended up writing Damascus because it was my experience, although it’s certainly not biographical, but it does explore a lot of themes and ideas which came from my experience over that period of time.

I didn’t go out there with the idea of writing a play; quite the opposite in fact. My job was to encourage young Arab writers to write plays, but the experience of being out of one’s own culture was so strong for me that it demanded I explore it in writing.

Although many of the plays I have written are set all over the world, I’ve noticed recently that an enormous amount of them are set in hotels. I think maybe I’m more of a local writer than I might at first appear. In many ways, I have the same small world as a playwright who sets all their plays in one part of the world, but I set many of my plays inside internationally anonymous spaces like hotels or airports. I think I might be quite obsessed with the idea of belonging and not belonging, and being out of place. In one of my first plays I wrote the line “I feel at home when I’m not at home”. I would say that is possibly true of me and something my plays reflect.

In 1992 my play Stalinland won a Fringe First in Edinburgh. I’ve done the festival almost every year since, and it has become a sort of home to me in a funny way. The Festival is a great thing for Scottish theatre because it means that once a year for about a month, the shop window of British theatre is in Edinburgh.

I think there’s a great energy coming out of Scottish theatre at the moment but I don’t think it’s happened suddenly. It’s been growing from a very small and fragile base for about 30 years. The arrival of the National Theatre of Scotland has created an input of energy and talent and also funding, but really it’s like one of those Icelandic volcanoes slowly growing underwater; you don’t notice it until it suddenly breaches the surface and then it seems incredibly dramatic and sudden.

The Traverse Theatre is really the main new writing house in Scotland and it has been so for a long time so it was the natural place to stage many of my plays. I did a play there in the autumn called Midsummer which is going to be revived next year, probably at the Edinburgh Festival, so I’m excited about that. I look back on Midsummer as having been a lovely experience because it was the first time I directed one of my own plays. It was a very happy experience so I’m particularly excited about it coming up again. Although I don’t suppose it will ever be as good as it was, nothing ever is.

- David Greig was speaking to Kate Jackson

Damascus continues at the Tricycle Theatre until 7 March 2009, and then embarks on an international tour to North Africa and the Near East. Directed by the Traverse Theatre’s previous artistic director Philip Howard, the cast are Nathalie Armin, Alex Elliott, Dolya Gavanski, Paul Higgins and Khalid Laith.


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