Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2003

This time last year, reviewing David Greig's Outlying Islands at the Traverse Theatre, I called him "probably the most thoughtful major playwright currently working in Scotland". This year his San Diego, which played for just three days last weekend at the Royal Lyceum as part of the Edinburgh International Festival, attests that we can safely ditch the "probably".

Even in his most linear plays, Greig works by obliqueness and allusion: he doesn't so much say things to us as create a space and atmosphere in which they can resonate with us. And San Diego is not linear. Its early stages may appear relatively straightforward, if quirkily written and staged: the first thing we see is Billy Boyd as a narrator-figure flying into and finding his way around the Californian city of the title. But Boyd plays a character called David Greig. He even wears a T-shirt proclaiming "DAVID GREIG"... but then, on the matinée performance I saw, so did the sign-language interpreters. At any rate, "Greig" is soon stabbed and disappears from the stage as a physical presence, and proceedings fragment.

We see a pilot trying to book a call-girl for the night, and trying also to maintain relations with his children: his son, a film actor with a religious-obsessive wife, and his daughter, institutionalised for self-mutilation to the point of autophagy "I would like to be cured," she says, before adding, "or smoked." We see an illegal immigrant searching for the mother who abandoned him as a child in Lagos to sing backing vocals for Paul McCartney, and the two strange characters all-purpose representatives of the urban infrastructure, but named after Popes who take him under their wings.

At nearly three hours, it's a long-haul flight, but Greig and his co-director Marisa Zanotti have created a production as haunting visually as verbally. The musings on identity and belonging, the immediate and the numinous, accrete almost imperceptibly to reach a heart-rending intensity. It's a beautiful music of a play. (That's not a conventional sentence, but it's an accurately representative one.)

At the Traverse, meanwhile, the Suspect Culture collective present their first piece without Greig's direct involvement, One Two. Two performers deliver a series of texts over and between the playing of a Godspeed You Black Emperor!-ish rock quartet who occupy most of the stage; their interaction (augmented by video footage) is informed by the music, rather than the band taking their cues from the actors. It's an intriguing experiment in alternative theatrical methods, but is much more diffuse than Greig's own web of allusion in San Diego.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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