Neil Cooper

Today’s announcement that David Greig will be staying on as artistic director of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh has made for a bright start to the theatrical year. This is even before Isobel McArthur’s audacious reimagining of Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) opens later this month. In his first interview since signing a new contract following four successful years, the visionary playwright and director has plenty of other news to share.

This includes the appointment of Zinnie Harris as a new associate director for the theatre, which will see the writer and director of her extraordinary John Webster adaptation, The Duchess [of Malfi] join fellow associate Wils Wilson on the artistic team alongside Greig. As well as this, with support from Creative Scotland, the Lyceum will host a fellowship for a writer in residence with the Lyceum Youth Theatre for seven months, with the focus on work for children and young people.

Running alongside this, L20 is a radical new artists’ attachment scheme designed to support the development of theatre artists from a breadth of experience, backgrounds and disciplines. With applications opening in March, the initiative will prioritise those from under-represented backgrounds, and in the pilot year will focus on artists from Edinburgh. As if this wasn’t enough to see in the new year, the Lyceum’s festive show, An Edinburgh Christmas Carol, has just broken a new record.

“It’s the biggest selling Christmas show the Lyceum has ever had,” Greig says of Tony Cownie’s local reimagining of Charles Dickens’ classic, with more than 35,000 people seeing the show. “I can’t tell you how much of the Christmas spirit that fills you up with. It just totally sets you up for the next year. It was a really good show, it was an Edinburgh show, it was a Lyceum company show, and it made people happy, and all of that made me proud.”

The success of An Edinburgh Christmas Carol is the latest big-hitter in Greig’s tenure, and comes at a time when the Lyceum has managed to expand its range and geographical reach despite its public funding remaining at a standstill. In the last year alone, his musical adaptation of Bill Forsyth’s classic feel-good film, Local Hero, similarly broke box office records, and will shortly open at the Old Vic in London.

Two other adaptations by Greig have fared similarly well. Greig’s version of Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction novel, Solaris, co-produced with Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, transferred to the Lyric, Hammersmith, while his version of Joe Simpson’s memoir, Touching the Void, had a sell-out run and went to the West End. Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), meanwhile, presented in co-production with the Tron Theatre, Glasgow and the Blood of the Young company, has already toured main stages across the UK following its initial Glasgow run in 2018. As a template for the Lyceum’s long-term future, this is a pretty solid base to start from.

“If there’s going to be a producing theatre in Edinburgh in fifty years’ time, we have to build for that now,” says Greig. “I’m really happy about signing up for another five years, because I’m just beginning to get a sense of what we can do and seeing the potential of the model we’re using, and at the same time being able to see that there’s a job to do. In the next five years we have to lay the foundations for the company to be able to continue to exist. The Lyceum has done great work over the last fifty years, but having years of standstill funding makes a huge difference to what you can do. My response to that is to take a negative and turn it into a positive, to do our own work, but to tour, to co-produce and to do commercial work.

“So this year there’s been a lot of activity, but it’s not been linear. We’ve also got lots of engagement work going on around the city, as well as work with our patrons, who do a huge amount. There’s also a lot of new work on the go, which takes two or three years to come through. It’s exciting trying to get big new Scottish plays onstage, and to break new talent as well. For the Lyceum to be a producing theatre in the city is a moral purpose, but you have to find ways to survive.”

With Harris and Wilson on board, Greig sees his associates as “two extraordinarily talented artists and thinkers about theatre. Zinnie is a writer and director who is creating a new form, really, and is doing it with blood, guts and passion. Wils is a different sort of visionary, who is always pushing the boundaries of what theatre can be. It would be easy to fall back on things that we know works, but everything Wils makes pushes us.”

The Lyceum Youth Theatre appointment looks set to galvanise another success story.

“LYT has been running for twenty years,” says Greig, “and the people who’ve come through it, like Sam Heughan and Nicola Roy is incredible. It’s a great resource, and I really want to expand the work it does. By bringing a writer in residence in and exposing the company to more new writing, I hope that will open things up even more.”

L20 looks set to be an even bigger creative melting pot. “I want to bring together a gang of artists of all kinds,” says Greig, and offer them a year-long connection to the theatre, where they can work together and hang out and learn all the different aspects of what goes on. Things will happen.”

With the announcement of the Lyceum’s 2020/2021 season pending, Greig’s confidence flies in the face of current austerity culture.

“What I’m excited about when I look at the next five years, is that we can look at all the problems, and we have to make theatre that’s not just for people who like theatre. Then, with L20 and everything else, we can help bring up a new generation of actors and theatre-makers, so we’re making theatre for the future.”