One Day In Spring, a play of 24 short scenes, brings the Òran Mór, Glasgow’s series of plays by young, Arab writers to a close. Mark Brown talked to the show’s director, David Greig, about staging the Revolution
The last time I interviewed dramatist David Greig for this newspaper, ahead of the Scottish transfer of his Macbeth sequel Dunsinane, he was in New York, working on the book for the Broadway musical of Roald Dahl’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. It speaks volumes about the man – not only his eclecticism as a writer, but also the diversity of his interests and passions – that I meet him this time, at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, to discuss One Day In Spring, a work of what he calls “24 theatrical fragments” by young, Arab writers.
Greig has curated and directed the show, which opens at Glasgow’s Òran Mór tomorrow, as part of the famous lunchtime theatre A Play, A Pie And A Pint, before transferring to the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. It will be the culmination of a season of six plays by young, Arab dramatists which reflect the contemporary Middle East.
The author of numerous plays connected with the region, including When The Bulbul Stopped Singing (adapted from the West Bank diaries of Raja Shehadeh in 2004) and Damascus (2007), Greig’s interest in Arab politics and culture is well established. The Òran Mór season, which is co-produced by the National Theatre of Scotland, came out of his pre-existing work with young playwrights from across the Arab world.
“I just had a lot of plays and a lot of writers that I was in touch with”, he explains. “Some of the plays had already had exposure, through public readings, in London and New York, but none of them had come to Scotland.”
Greig had already discussed the Arab writers with David MacLennan, producer of A Play, A Pie And A Pint, before the 26-year-old graduate and street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi committed the desperate act of self-immolation which sparked the Tunisian Revolution in December 2010. When the Arab Spring began, MacLennan came back to Greig, wanting, not only to stage some of the existing plays, but also to commission new work from the Arab writers.
The playwright and director is full of praise for MacLennan, who, as the man behind A Play, A Pie And A Pint, produces more new theatrical work than any other theatre in Scotland. “I have to give huge kudos to Dave MacLennan and Òran Mór. I think it’s extraordinarily bold programming, just to say, ‘I’m going to commission and stage a season of Arab work.’ It’s fair to say that, although there are scatterings of Arab work in Britain, no other theatre has done this… It’s amazing to see a theatre which is often associated with lighter work programming these plays.”
There is a very strong sense in which Greig defies the right-wing stereotype of the western armchair revolutionary, living vicariously off the sacrifice and martyrdom of the people of the Arab world. For him, writing has long been a tool of practical solidarity. That included bringing the young playwrights over to the UK, if the dubious vigilance of the British state didn’t prevent it. “We had unbelievable trouble getting visas for our writers to come here”, he explains. “Some couldn’t come at all.”
He is particularly proud to have discovered that the Glasgow season has already had a notable impact back in the Middle East. “The very first play, an Òran Mór commission called Could You Please Look Into The Camera, by Mohammed Al Attar, was a play about detainees in Syria. It has just opened in Beirut to huge success, and, apparently, with audiences driving from Syria to see it. For everyone involved in staging the play at Òran Mór, that’s brilliant. We incubated something which has gone back to the Middle East and been able to reflect events there.”
For those who might have seen work staged earlier in the season, Greig is keen to emphasise that One Day In Spring is a different proposition. The opening three plays were, he says, “very stark, almost Stalinist, giving you the deal.” That was, he insists, merely a “coincidence in programming”. There’s no such monolithic, Socialist Realism in his closing show, which, he insists, is much more dramatic.
Comprising 24 vignettes, by 24 writers, set in 24 hours of the same day in various locations, the play reminds me, conceptually, of Jim Jarmusch’s lovely 1991 film Night On Earth. However, where that movie fitted five cabs journeys, in five cities, into two hours, Greig’s piece squeezes 24 “fragments of drama” into a piece of lunchtime theatre which lasts less than an hour. How, I ask, is that possible? “Some are very short”, he replies, succinctly.
“I knew what I wanted to do from the start”, he continues. “I wanted to reflect something of the tremendous energy I had experienced from the young, Arab writers I knew. Across the Middle East there are, from one country to the next, different traditions and different political situations. The thing that unites them all is this amazing, outward-facing energy. They were interested in making contact with the world. They were on the internet, they were blogging, they were making music. What they weren’t doing was saying, ‘oh, I wish I lived in America’. They were fighting to change their own societies.
“I thought, ‘if I get 24 fragments from across that group of writers, it will be something. I don’t know what it will be, but it will have something of that energy [of the Arab youth and the Revolution].
“I began thinking it would be a portrait of a moment, but I don’t think it is now. I think it’s a portrait of a generation. What excites me most is that there are moments where you are genuinely hearing that voice, rather than an official voice, or a 24 hours news voice.”
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 20, 2012
© Mark Brown