David Greig seems to be able to knock out plays at roughly the same rate as Ernie Wise. In the next few weeks, we will see the Stratford premiere of The American Pilot, his latest commission for the RSC. The Donmar Warehouse is about to present a revival of his succinctly named 1999 play The Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Soviet Union. And now, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London gets its first look at his most recent drama, Pyrenees.
The great actress Paola Dionisotti - who is exceptionally good in Vicky Featherstone's magical and witty Paines Plough production - once played an old boot of an am-dram queen in a Just William story on the television. "William Brown," she cried, her voice shaking with affronted intensity, "I spent the best part of Tuesday morning writing this play!" One would, again, be inclined to think of Greig, if it weren't for the high conceptual polish and mischievous intellectual astringency he brings to all he composes. Indeed, it's with a much older compatriot that this dramatist (and dramaturg of the new Scottish National Theatre) has, for me, the most tantalising affinities. I'd argue that he is the Muriel Spark of contemporary playwriting.
This comparison is with the proviso that here, in Pyrenees, he taps into a vein of emotion that she would temperamentally bypass. The scene, beautifully evoked in Neil Warmington's droll design, is played out on the terrace of a shuttered, out-of-season hotel. A man in his late fifties has been found unconscious in the snowy foothills. He can't remember who he is, though the traditional symbolism of the scallop shell found on his person suggests that he was on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Rather than rattle with anxiety over his indeterminate status, Hugh Ross's Man seems almost academically amused and bemused by the questions his predicament raises about the nature of identity.
Anna, the young woman sent from the British Consulate to try to confirm his nationality (splendidly played by Frances Grey), is similarly unresolved. It's a case of the blind leading the blind ("I'm Welsh, but I'm so bloody English," she frets, when making an embarrassing mess of over-tipping). It's a case, too, of instant, strong mutual attraction. Then there's the comically disconcerting proprietor (Jonathan McGuinness), who has, it appears, a bit of every nationality in him, and who changes his persona according to the perceived needs of his various guests.
The combination of the playful and the wistful, and the keen imaginative feel for the curious weightlessness of the contemporary, wired-up world, are very characteristic of Greig. A new note is struck, though, with the arrival of Dionisotti's deeply moving Vivienne. The Man recoils in denial from the various assurances (photographs etc) that she gives him of their long, childless marriage. Dionisotti projects a piercing mix of quiet dignity and wounded patience in the face of his rebuttals, her manner deliciously flecked with a faint Morningside grandeur à la Spark. Her husband is at two removes from her, on the run not just from the marriage but from a busted affair. The play becomes the perceptive study of a love that attempts to overtake this absconder and reclaim him - not from any masochistic romantic devotion, but from a realistic assessment of their options: an assessment that Dionisotti makes luminous. Highly recommended.
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