When David Greig began writing Victoria in 1996, the world was a very different place to how it looks today. Yet if all goes well, Greig's epic tale of three generations of a Highland community might just have matured into something even more significant. Originally produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2000, and now receiving its Scottish premiere at Dundee Rep, Victoria takes place over three time zones, 1936, 1976 and 1996. A large ensemble of actors play some thirty-two characters, at the centre of which are three very different women, all called Victoria.
“It's very strange going back to the play after all this time,” says Greig, “but it's also very interesting. There's an extent to it being like meeting one's younger self, and on one level that writer was very gauche, and very different to the writer I am now, but it's also fascinating to see the level of ambition that writer had then. I didn't realise, but there are lines in Victoria that reappear in [Greig's recent Edinburgh Festival Fringe play] The Events, so it's interesting to see some of the themes that run through my work. So while it's not without its awkwardness, Victoria is a play I think still stands up.”
Originally conceived as a trilogy of three separate plays that even the RSC's resources couldn't cope with, the inspirations for Victoria were many.
“I was very interested in the Spanish Civil war,” Greig remembers, “and at the time the war was going on in Bosnia. In essence it was in defence of the idea of multi-culturalism and Europe living together, and it seemed all these ideas were going to the dogs. The phrase 'ethnic cleansing' came out of the war in Bosnia, which we'd never heard before, and Europe was a very fragile place.
“So I was looking around, and I thought of all these young men going out to take part in the Spanish Civil war and fight for something they believed in. It was their choice to go out there, and I suppose I asked myself why this didn't happen now. To put it crudely, why wasn't there an International Brigade going out to defend Bosnian Muslims, and what was it about the 1930s that made cause and possibility so inspiring?
“At that time in 1996 as well, it felt very much like cause and belief had gone. One of the interesting things is that the play has developed an invisible fourth act, following the three acts set in 1936, 1976 and 1996. When it was first staged, 1996 was essentially the present day. Now fifteen years or so on, we've had thirteen years of a Labour government, we've had devolution, we've had Iraq, we've had devolution and we've had the coalition. The whole world has changed so much, so now, when we see Victoria at the end of the play, we now know what's going to happen to her.”
One of the major devices in the play is having the cast play different characters in each act, with all three Victorias played by the same actress.
“Theatrically speaking, I was interested in the effect of that,” Greig says. “It's like music, in that you can play the same chord, but it will have different resonances depending on what else is around it. With the Victorias, I wanted that feeling of young female energy, and each of them kind of becomes the spirit of their age.”
At the time Victoria was commissioned, Greig was one of the rising stars of his generation, with his first full-length professional plays, Europe in 1994 and The Architect ion 1996, being produced by The Traverse Theatre. The artistic director of Scotland's new writing theatre at the time was Philip Howard, who directed both plays. With Howard having recently been appointed artistic director of Dundee Rep, his new production of Victoria not only marks his directorial debut at his new artistic home. It also reunites him with Greig for the first time since the Traverse days, when Howard also directed Greig's plays, Outlying Islands, The Speculator and Damascus.
“I've always wanted Victoria to be seen in Scotland,” says Greig, “but I wanted to hold out for a really special production, and when Philip approached me, because I've collaborated with him so often, it felt right. I think he's done a lovely job from what I've seen so far, and I think he really understands my writing. The play was pretty sprawling, and he's had to do some pretty major pruning to make it a manageable evening in Dundee. That dramaturgical sensitivity us I think one of Philip's major strengths.”
2013 has been quite a year for Greig. His stage version of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has become a West End hit, while his Edinburgh Festival Fringe play, The Events, was
similarly acclaimed. Opening hot on the heels of Victoria is the National Theatre of Scotland's revival of Dunsinane, Greig's sequel of sorts to Shakespeare's Macbeth.
This summer also saw the publication of The Suspect Culture Book, an archive of Suspect Culture, the theatre company Greig formed with director Graham Eatough while they were both at Bristol University. As well as a series of essays about the company, the book also contains Greig's scripts for three of the company's most important works; Timeless, Mainstream and Lament.
While Greig remains as prolific as ever, he might just be about to disappear from public view for a while.
“I have a pile of writing to do,” he says, “so there won't be a new play by me onstage for at least another year now. With everything that's happened this year, I kind of feel there's not exactly a shortage of plays by me out there just now.”
Victoria, Dundee Rep, September 4th-21st.
David Greig – A Life in Words
David Greig was born in Edinburgh in 1969, and grew up in Nigeria.
On returning to Edinburgh in his teens, he studied English and drama at Bristol University.
In 1990 while still a student, Greig co-founded Suspect Culture with director Graham Eatough and composer Nick Powell.
Greig's first professionally staged play, Stalinland, is produced at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1992, then at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, in 1993.
Greig's first Traverse commission, Europe, appears in 1994, beginning a long association with Scotland's new writing theatre. Europe's themes of displacement and attempts by people to connect during fractured times re-occur in many of Greig's later plays.
Branching out beyond the Traverse, Greig wrote Victoria for the Royal Shakespeare Company, The Cosmonaut's Last Message for Paines Plough and Caledonia Dreaming for 7:84 Scotland.
Greig's work has appeared twice at Edinburgh International Festival; in 1999 with imagined history play, The Speculator, and in 2003 with contemporary fantasia, San Diego.
More recently Greig has scored hits with lo-fi musical, Midsummer, and with pub theatre ballad, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, both of which have toured the world.
Greig's version of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is currently running in the West End, his Edinburgh Festival Fringe play, The Events, is on tour and his sequel to Shakespeare's Macbeth, Dunsinane, is about to tour for the second time.
In 2014, Greig will collaborate with writer director David MacLennan on The Great Don't Know Show, a major commission by the National Theatre of Scotland, which will look at the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence through a piece of popular political music hall.
The Herald, September 3rd 2013