A Life in Three Acts

Alasdair Gray's Lanark defies description. Sean Bell talks to David Greig, the only playwright talented—or foolhardy—enough to adapt it for the stage

feature | Read in About 6 minutes
Published 22 Aug 2015

One might assume it would take a lot to intimidate David Greig, perhaps Scotland's most famous living playwright. And yet, in discussing his efforts to adapt Alasdair Gray's novel Lanark for the EIF, his obvious enthusiasm is tempered with a cautious regard for the monumental task he has set himself.

"A play like Lanark is like climbing a mountain," Greig tells me. "You have a clear view of it long before you begin, but once you're climbing it, the difficulties appear. Right now, we're proceeding up the north face."

It's an understandable attitude. Upon publication in 1981, Lanark shattered virtually every preconception about Scottish literature. The novel addressed the realities of the working class in a way that completely avoided what Norman MacCaig once termed "kitchen sink kitsch". It introduced elements of surrealism and fantasy as a way of portraying Scotland instead of escaping it. It made eloquent, brutal political arguments while abandoning the clunky tropes of agitprop. The impression it made on Greig, and many others, has been lasting and profound.

"I read it just after I finished school," he remembers. "It was a novel that wasn't like other novels. It showed me that any kind of writing was possible, in any combination. And for a novel that was obviously so groundbreaking to have come from Scotland, and be about Scotland, made you feel as if you were suddenly located somewhere interesting, instead of living in a backwater."

Greig was approached to adapt the novel by Graham Eatough, Lanark's director and a frequent collaborator with whom he co-founded the theatre company Suspect Culture. "Graham had been talking to Alasdair's gallerist, who had been making arrangements for a retrospective for Alasdair's 80th birthday. They were considering a theatrical element, and Graham immediately said Lanark – mainly because, when we were at university studying drama, I shoved a well-thumbed copy of the novel into his hands. He had been infected, just as I had."

Greig's career has been one of astonishing variety: it's difficult not to be impressed by a playwright who has tackled both Tintin and Caligula. Fortuitously, that eclectic background proved to be key when considering how to go about adapting a work as dense and multifaceted as Lanark

"Lanark could have been adapted in at least 10 different ways, each perfectly valid: as a political fable for example, or a psychological exploration. But we wanted to adapt the book faithfully – that involved replicating the experience of reading it. If something's playful on the page, it should feel playful on the stage."

Greig, however, is eager to point out that the adaptation has been a group effort, with creative energies flowing from every participant. "Alasdair wrote Lanark over the course of decades. It's one mind's outpouring over what felt like a lifetime. Add to that the fact that Gray has sat at the centre of Scottish culture for 30 years... No one of us could engage with that. There had to be a sense of company and multiplicity. It wasn't one artist approaching another, but many."

Lanark's awe-inspiring and sometimes forbidding reputation has meant that it is arguably not the most populist of books, a condition Greig has some hope of rectifying. "Lanark is a book that means everything to a small number of people and nothing to a great many people," he says. "Our adaptation is aimed squarely at people who haven't read the book. What we're aiming for is a 25-year-old to sit down, not knowing what they're going to see, and have their mind blown like mine was when I first read the novel."

Still, that doesn't mean the material will be simplified or watered down in any way. "It's meant to be big," Greig says firmly. "That's why our play has two intervals and three acts of an hour each."

Lanark's theatrical adaptation was made possible by the Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, a relatively new means of funding that comes straight from the Scottish government. When it was decided earlier this year that Lanark would receive £200,000 for its production, it merited an announcement from the culture secretary Fiona Hyslop herself. As Greig has previously been vocal in criticising aspects of Scottish arts funding, I ask how he feels about this particular instance, and what lessons can be drawn from it.

"I don't think we could have done it without them. I've been completely satisfied by the Expo Fund's involvement. My criticism was of a particular set of policies that Creative Scotland was then operating under." (In 2012, Greig wrote an open letter to Creative Scotland condemning their planned removal of its flexible funding stream.) "Whereas this comes directly from the Scottish government. But we've been very lucky with our partnerships, such as the [Glasgow] Citizens Theatre."

To Greig, the logic behind such a massive investment is a matter of national importance. "Alasdair is an important writer, and Edinburgh is an important arts festival. This is our chance to give something to the rest of the world, to showcase Scottish arts, and it would have been a terrible shame to go off half-cocked and do it on a shoestring.

"The Expo Fund is a very practical idea, and I hope it continues. But the day-to-day business of arts funding will continue to be done through Creative Scotland. They have a very tough job. When the British government cuts a percentage of its funding via Barnett [the mechanism used by the UK Treasury to adjust the amount of public expenditure to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland], there's no way for Scotland to avoid that. The arts will have to fight very hard. The best way forward is for the Scottish government and Creative Scotland to work together. I'm optimistic about that cooperation, but it will be a tough environment."

Finally, I ask about Greig's other major project this August, an endeavour just as close to his heart as Lanark: 'Welcome to the Fringe' is an effort to bring Palestinian artists to Edinburgh for the festival season, formed in response to the restrictions imposed by Israeli border controls, lack of funding opportunities and UK visa regulations. "I'm delighted with what we've been able to achieve so far," says Greig. "I'm hopeful that if the model works, we can expand it to include any country, any sectors of society, who find it difficult to get to the Fringe. None of us want the Fringe to become a playground for middle-class white students. 

"All artists must be mindful: are we trying to keep the barriers up, or break them down?"