David Greig as a dramatist stands out on several counts. The first is the sheer quantity of work. Since his first post-student production in 1993 for Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre he has written eighty plays, on occasion adaptation, translation or portmanteau piece with other authors, but in the main original sole-authored drama.
Secondly, he has largely bypassed London. The Tricycle presented his love-song to Edinburgh, Midsummer, as its mid-winter offering over the December-January 2010-2011. But his plays have largely gone from Scotland to the world.
Thirdly, his subject is the world and modernity. He has at times dipped into Scots history – the subject of The Speculator is the eighteenth century Edinburgh banker John Law. But he has not looked for inspiration in mournful traipsing around the dead mines of Fife or Ayrshire. He has a boldness that is without equal. The Events took on, with triumph, the most terrible of subjects in a way that film or television has not.
The Events 2013
© The Young Vic / Stephen Cummsikey
I have seen six of the plays – they include the adaptation with Rupert Norris of Tintin that was the Barbican’s sparkling 2005 Christmas offering. Greig has also worked with playwrights across the Middle East from Morocco to Syria. One of the plays that emerged from the experience is Damascus. As a play it had a particular personal interest. Like Paul the central character, I too had once been an export salesman in Syria with nights to kill in a Damascus hotel.
This was my reaction to seeing the production at the Traverse Theatre in August 2007.
Scotland is taking drama places the other nations aren’t. Two years ago the prolific David Greig’s Brechtian The American Pilot had the pilot of the title landing in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, under foreign occupation and on the brink of civil war. Last year, the acclaimed Black Watch was a semi-documentary exploration of the famous regiment’s deployment in Basra. This year the Traverse has commissioned Damascus, again by David Greig.
There is a tradition of plays in which Europeans invade far-off hotels, their cluster of ingrained attitudes and assumptions hovering between innocence and malice. David Hare did it in A Map of the World and Anthony Minghella in Made in Bangkok. But whereas these two dramatists gave strong bona fide reasons for their protagonists to be far from home – a textile buying mission, a conference – Greig’s Paul, a TEFL teacher-author marooned in a three-star hotel in Syria’s capital, is more a schematic device for a rich exploration on language, culture and politics. He is not a likely commercial representative of even a small publishing company given the job when his boss chooses instead a conference in the Caribbean.
As a character Paul is inconsistent. Weakly attached to his family back at home he behaves like any fictional sales rep. He gets pissed, fancies he has something special going on with his local contact, Muna, a superb performance by Nathalie Armin. The author of sympathetic multi-cultural characters in his teaching books Paul is, also, improbably wholly lacking in intellectual enquiry or cultural sensitivity.
He takes off his shoes in a hotel lobby- unheard of in this cultural context – happily says to receptionist Zakaria, ‘Bollocks,’ and, ‘I’m bursting for a piss.’ But, if he is given the persona of a grunt from Georgia, the play is anchored by Muna, the representative of a Syrian educational institute. In the strongest scene of all she goes through author Paul’s educational material and demands changes necessary for Syria. It is rich in ironies. Paul has a character who wears the niqab. For Muslim Syria this tolerance of fundamental postures is unacceptable.
Anthony MacIlwaine’s angular hotel lobby set is emblematic of the Damascene tradition of richly patterned inlay. The receptionist Zakaria, stranded in a cultural no man’s land, has a father who is a mosaicist. Paul buys in the souk a box of LPs of renowned Arab singers. The play itself resembles a song by Fairouz where a single melody line is followed by line after line of variation with a hypnotic effect. There is a linear plot, underscored by the strange and glamorous Ukrainian ex-KGB cocktail pianist, Elena, which climaxes in an act of violence but it is less compelling than the digressions around cultural and political contrast.
Greig offers no easy single viewpoint. Yes, Muna is allowed to denounce, in somewhat didactic fashion, the history from Balfour, Sykes-Picot and the British mandate of Palestine. But, in a moving dialogue twist, she switches an exchange about the use of the future tense in English to the intensely personal. Her mother will never walk along the beach in Jaffa where she was born.
Behind the characters a hotel television shows inchoate images from al-Jazeera; the power brokers, the victims, are all there. In the forefront within two hours Greig offers more insight and empathy with an Arab nation, beyond categories of victimhood or aggressor, than thousands of hours of media exposure have achieved.
Philip Howard’s direction is filled with detail. Graham Sutherland’s sound design captures the vague omnipresent background of traffic and car horns. Ros Steen‘s work as voice coach has given the three Arabic characters a distinctive, and to this ear impeccable, English. It is some acting achievement that Alex Elliott is wholly a middle-class Syrian.
For a dramatist as experienced as Greig there is the occasional maladroit stagecraft. A couple of times Paul exits conveniently to refresh his lost sense of smell in the urinals. But these are small quibbles. Forget claims to perfection; producers and playwright should be applauded for boldness in ambition, courage in tackling subject matter far beyond their borders and the accomplishment of a richly nuanced, complex text. In a just world it would travel far.”