Theatre: There's no place like home

David Greig isn't just a `Scottish' writer: his plays are produced across Europe. What does being a Scot mean to him?
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The Independent Culture
Sean Connery has touched down north of the Border and so have I. Global screen superstar, Scotland's biggest export next to whisky, and her most prominent tax exile, ranged on one side of the case; a humble English theatre critic on the other. Surely no connection. Ah, but wait a moment. Connery is here - using up a few of the precious days allowed him per year by the Inland Revenue - to deliver what turns out to be an emotional, self-scripted election rally speech in support of the Scottish National Party. I, meanwhile, am here to talk about the cultural Zeitgeist with David Greig, the playwright who is, by general consent, the most gifted and prolific of the vibrant new wave of Scottish dramatists that includes David Knives in Hens Harrower and Stephen Passing Places Greenhorn.

Now it just so happens that Connery was the comically dominating offstage presence in Greig's Caledonia Dreaming, a 1997 play that put pre-devolutionary Scotland on the psychiatrist's couch by following a collection of characters as they chased around the place on a summer night when Connery is rumoured to be in residence at Edinburgh's top hotel. Cut to April 1999, and an amused Greig admits that Connery could no longer function in that play as a unifying, fantasy-figured icon of Scottish success.

The local press have turned hostile towards him (sniping at such anomalies as a great Patriot accepting an officer to promote Suntory Crest, a Japanese blended whisky), and the Kosovo crisis could not have come at a worse time, electorally speaking, for a Nationalist party. So who would he replace him with, if the play were given a revival? Greig thinks for a moment and replies, with typically playful humour, "Irvine Welsh".

Chatting to this softly-spoken young playwright, in the lounge bar of an anonymous hotel in a Glasgow railway complex, is a bit like conducting an interview with Samuel Beckett in a row of dustbins. Transit areas, borders, stop-off points that are neither one place nor the other, and cultural no-mans-lands, are Greig's principal imaginative terrain. This is the case in a text-based play like Europe (1994), which projects his preoccupation with Scottishness on to a redundant railway station in a decaying, unnamed central European town that has, historically, suffered all the indignities and identity crises of being a mere border between rival powers.

It's also true of the pieces he makes using the collaborative working methods of his own company, Suspect Culture, where text tends to be the last element added to an experience that lays as much emphasis on the eloquence of stylised gesture and musical form. Airport for example, was a droll and touching search for the "Real Scotland or the real anywhere" in the vast, limbo-like transit lounge that is the modern airport and employed a mixed nationality cast. Cultural cusps are to Greig what thistles were to Hugh MacDiarmid, so, at this watershed in Scotland's identity, he's just the right man to quiz about how his generation of Scottish dramatists relate to their country's dramatic heritage, respond to the present and view their future.

One of the seven new pieces by Greig that will be premiered in 1999 is the haunting and snappily titled The Cosmonaut's last message to the woman he once loved in the former Soviet Union, which is just about to open in a Paines Plough touring production directed by Vicky Featherstone. Taking place both in outer space and in various European locations, it contains a scene in which a woman fantasises about retreating to the Isle of Skye and learning Gaelic: "The children can go to school on the Internet," she remarks, blissfully unaware of any contradiction. The opposing forces (nationalism and globalisation) exemplified in her desires are reflected too, in Greig's response when I ask him which flag flies over his creative sub-conscious. He remarks that nationalism is both "irrational and very important". That's the paradox. "The more technology makes your nationality a meaningless thing, the more likely you are to cling to it. I effectively have more in common with a New York playwright on a similar income who watched the same television programmes in the 1970s, than I do with a fisherman in Sutherland." But, as globalisation goes into overdrive, "a simple gathering in a room is something people will increasingly want".

Which is where theatre comes into its own. But is this tantamount to suggesting that theatre and nationalism are parallel phenomena: both declared out-moded, yet being rediscovered as at once precious and dangerous? The latest vintage of Scottish playwright is distinguished by its looking to Europe both for audiences and for aesthetic influences. So would it not be slightly rum for such dramatists to lay any great stress on that parallel?

Philip Howard, the highly astute and, ironically, wholly English artistic director of Edinburgh's Traverse - a theatre where, during his tenure, the proportion of the repertoire devoted to Scottish playwrights has gone up from 30 to 90 per cent - remarks that a traditional source of vigour in the country's theatre and of differentiation from its English counterpart is that the dominant idiom has been working-class.

Greig, of whose work Howard is a key interpreter, is aware that his plays are regarded in certain quarters as the symptom of a creeping middle-class tendency and lack of that customary red-bloodedness. Certainly, it is hard to imagine Chris Hannan, a fine playwright from the preceding generation, composing a piece about a bunch of twentysomething urban Scots that involved a score for onstage string quartet which often deliberately drowned the dialogue, a Cubist arrangement of bodies, and lots of ritualised miming - as was the case with Timeless. But Greig good-humouredly straddles the contradictions and ironies of being both "the most important playwright to have emerged north of the border in years" (The Scotsman) and an unrepentantly arty internationalist.

One of these ironies relates to England. At a recent conference in Copenhagen about the creation of playwrighting cultures, I heard Greig's gifted friend and fellow Glasgow-based dramatist Stephen Greenhorn vehemently deny that he was a British writer and effectively say that, in terms of his priorities, London could go fuck itself. Greig is more in two minds ("I don't think of London as the capital of Great Britain but as the capital of theatre") and points out that one of the ways in which theatre remains nationalist is in its funding. Understandably, he continues, neither the Scottish Arts Council nor the London Arts Board are prepared to finance the export of subsidised work to the English metropolis. This means that Europe has been seen in Europe but not in London, with the added irony that Europeans tend to take the title literally. "If I had my time again, I would call the play Scotland. That border town could just as easily be Motherwell." The catch 22 is that a playwright's native stock north of the Border rises considerably after appearances south of that line.

A source of money that by-passes these problems is the Edinburgh Festival, which has, for this year, commissioned Greig and Lluisa Cunille - a writer from the analogous polity of Catalonia - to compose pieces about emergent nations. Greig's response to the brief is highly revealing of his playfulness and capacity for lateral thinking. At the centre of The Speculator is John Law, the 18th-century Scot who invented paper currency and the notion of money as pure function. For 500 days in 1719, thanks to a financial scheme that eventually collapsed, Law ruled France more absolutely than any absolute monarch, and the play floats the contention that if the staid burghers of Edinburgh hadn't earlier drummed the father of paper inflation out of the country, it could have amassed enough wealth to avoid the 1707 Act of Union. But The Speculator is not patriotic historical pageant; from Greig's description, it sounds more like an, anachronism-flecked, post-modern meditation of the unbearable lightness of money.

As for the twinning with Catalonia, he thinks it works very much to Scotland's benefit. "I don't imagine there are hundreds of Catalonians milling around, saying how like Glasgow Barcelona is," he quips. I have no doubt that this self-deprecating humour is partly sincere; but it also, to my ear, sounds like an instance of the more relaxed cultural confidence that has generated this remarkable flowering of new Scottish dramaturgy.