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Stephen Greenhorn and Rona Munro - Tracks of the Winter Bear

You could be forgiven for thinking Stephen Greenhorn and Rona Munro have come in from the cold. Tracks of the Winter Bear, the writers' collaborative double bill of plays which opens at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh tonight, sees both writers getting back to their roots with the theatre company where some of their earliest work was seen. The production will also be Greenhorn's first stage play since Sunshine on Leith began its road to international acclaim in 2007.

While Munro's plays have been seen at the Traverse more recently, her one-act contribution to this new compendium will be a considerably more intimate affair than the epic sweep of The James Plays, her trilogy of history plays presented at the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival by the National Theatre of Scotland.

“Tracks of the Winter Bear is much smaller,” she says, “but it's really magical as well. I'd had this idea for a while about doing a kind of adult Christmas show that had this great big bear in it. Then when Stephen and I came together earlier this year to talk about doing something, we found that we both had very similar ideas.”

As Greenhorn explains, “We were both in search of a motif, and when we put our heads together, we both liked the idea of doing a proper winter play set in Edinburgh rather than some abstract place, so part of the thrill of a scene is that it could be happening tomorrow four hundred yards from here.”

Once they began writing, Greenhorn and Munro's mutual interest in bears came out in very different ways.

“They're stylistically very different,” Greenhorn says of the plays, “but come from similar places. Both Rona and I were interested in characters who were getting older, characters who weren't in the first flush of youth, and who have a lot of baggage. There's something there as well about people living on the edges of society, people on the periphery who aren't integrated, and how that feels in the current climate. There's this whole notion as well of bears hibernating for the winter, and how polar bears don't hibernate.”

While separate plays in their own right, Tracks of the Winter Bear is divided into two acts, with Greenhorn's piece directed by the Traverse's associate director, Zinnie Harris, while Munro's piece is overseen by the new writing theatre's artistic director, Orla O'Loughlin.

In terms of plot, all Greenhorn will say about his play is that it is “a love story. It's a slightly tragic one, but slightly redemptive as well. The last performance is on Christmas Eve, so I don't want people going away all bleak. The sort of worlds I'm playing with are like those in A Christmas Carol and It's A Wonderful Life. There are elements that are quite dark, but they end up becoming quite redemptive.

Munro describes her piece as being “about a woman and a bear and the journey they go on. Once I had the idea, I never thought anyone would ever want to do it, so without Orla it wouldn't exist.”

Munro's relationship with the Traverse dates back to 1983 with her early play, Fugue, through to Your Turn To Clean The Stair, which was the last play to be performed at the new writing theatre's Grassmarket space. Munro's work with the Traverse continued with Iron in 2002, a translation of Quebecois writer Evelyne de la Cheneliere's play, Strawberries in January in 2006, and The Last Witch, seen at the Royal Lyceum Theatre as part of Edinburgh International Festival, in 2009. Her most recent full-length work for the space was Pandas in 2011.

Munro's work on screen has included Ladybird Ladybird with director Ken Loach, and, more recently, Oranges and Sunshine with Loach's son, Jim Loach.

“Writing for television has become more and more difficult,” says Munro, whose early credits include episodes of Doctor Who. “I've written a lot of films which haven't seen the light of day, and ideas about what is wanted by producers has changed a lot.”

This year, another new stage play, Scuttlers, was seen at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester. Beyond Tracks of the Winter Bear, however, the return of The James Plays is clearly the thing she is most excited about.

“It's a huge source of delight,” she says of the NTS revival, which will tour to Australia and England after they open in Edinburgh in February. “The James Plays was one of the things I'd most wanted to do in the world, so to get the plays in front of a Scottish audience again is really special.”

Munro previously worked with Greenhorn,who she calls “a television ninja”, alongside fellow playwright Isabel Wright on Gilt, in which all three writers worked on the same play in a production presented by 7:84 Scotland in 2003.

In keeping with Munro's description of him, Greenhorn has spent the last few years concentrating on writing for television. This has included episodes of Doctor Who and River City, the latter of which he created, as well as supernatural drama, Marchlands, and the screenplay for the big-screen version of Sunshine on Leith, the Proclaimers soundtracked musical play that began life onstage at Dundee Rep.

The only theatre he has been involved in since then came when he was drafted in by West Yorkshire Playhouse director James Brining, who commissioned Sunshine on Leith while in charge of Dundee Rep, to work as dramaturg on his production of Maxine Peake's play, Beryl. Now back living in Edinburgh after several years in London, Greenhorn is enjoying working in the theatre where following early works with 7:84 Scotland, his writing career began in earnest in 1997 with his road movie for the stage, Passing Places.

“It's an odd feeling of excitement,” says Greenhorn, who also adapted Belgian writer Arne Sierens' play, The Ballad of Crazy Paola, for the Traverse in 2001, “but some things are just the same. Working in Traverse 1 is really strange, because you realise that's the exact same space where Passing Places was done, but you also realise we're all an awful lot older. Caroline Deyga, who's in the play, would've been a toddler then. So there's a mix of excitement about the current set-up and nostalgia for the old one.”

Like Munro, Greenhorn's experiences writing for television have been mixed.

“You can work on all these things for two years,” he says, “and then for various reasons they don't get made. It's really exciting doing the researching and writing, but then it's really frustrating when nothing happens with all that. In the theatre you get commissioned for a play that goes on in six months time, and you have the thrill of watching actors build a character in rehearsals.”

With what he calls “a second wave” of TV projects pending, a full-length commission for the Traverse is also ongoing. Munro too is working on a new play, this time for Birmingham Rep, currently being run by former Traverse associate director, Roxana Silbert.

In the meantime, audiences will have the two plays that form Tracks of the Winter Bear to keep them warm.

“They're about love and loss,” says Munro, “and people confronting their hopes and fears.”

Tracks of the Winter Bear, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, December 9-24.
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, December 8th 2015

ends

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