Why write a play about a mountain expedition in the Himalayas? ‘Because it was there,’ DAVID GREIG tells US. Words: Steve Cramer
s l gingerly examined the sheep‘s turd
adhering to the elbow of my denim jacket. I
reflected that this badge of silage cottld only be attained in the cottntryside. My companion stared ottt from the peak of the Irish mountain. She said. ‘l)oesn't it inspire you‘." I gave as vagtte an assent as I could. as I looked down glume at my black leather shoes. which would need to be replaced before I attended another wedding.
Back in the car afterwards. I realised that it was an experience of great beauty. Being back in the car afterwards. I mean. I've yet to fttlly recover from this bttcolic moment many years ago. It involved a great deal of walking around among animals not yet
properly prepared for eating. and an epic quantity of
suffering the grim. malodorous environs of the cottntry-dreadful. Why does no one listen to my repeated assertion that the countryside is best viewed through a windscreen'.’
So it is with. if you‘ll allow me. mountain anxiety. that I attend a meeting with David (ireig in the reassurineg ttrban bar of the Traverse theatre. There he sits. his laptop propped tip in front of him. He orders the ascetic measure of a cup of hot water. llis line featttred and pale face. framed by dark hair. peers from behind his specs. above a big. brown woolly jumper. lies about to mount a plausible defence of mountaineering. and as ever with this gifted and deservedly celebrated dramatist. number IS in T/Il’ list's recent faces of 2003. I’m about to be persuaded.
(ireig is still in his 30s. yet his work seems to have been with tts for a long time. Airport. 'Ii'me/es‘s. 'I'lte Cosmonaut's Last Message to the Woman He ()nee Loved in the I’nrmer
Soviet (’nimz. ()ttI/l‘l'lts’ [Slum/S
and most recently. Sun Dies“.
have all fascinated audiences
with their examination of l
alienated individuals and
fragmented contemporary culture. For this project. (ireig To makes a welcome return to
Suspect Culture. at company that he. director (lraham liatough '
and others co-founded. The
completely unjustified threat
that hangs over the company. which has produced some splendid and genttinely experimental theatre over the last decade. makes this show seem all the more important. With the Scottish Arts Council so focused on the National Theatre that it seems intent upon pushing such companies as this one to the wall in the next year by gradually withdrawing funding. one can‘t help bttt wonder who will be left for the National to commission by the time the theatre goes tip. (lreig can’t be drawn on the subject. bttt there’s much for the rest of tis to say on this apparent threat to the company's future. If you. reader. would be kind enough to address some missives to both the SAC and your .VlSl’. maybe we can turn this one around.
Meanwhile. I seek an explanation for (ireig's interest in mountaineering. which he dabbles in himself. What he says tells tis much about his work. and our need to see this important piece of theatre. lle skilfully rebttts my theory that people who climb mountains are an evolutionary cul de sac. folk who feel a need to experience discomforts that an urban. middle-class lifestyle can‘t provide. His story of an expedition of diverse people up a mountain adjacent to liverest in the Himalayas is far more complex. So too is its staging at (ilasgow‘s 'l‘ramway. using a climbing wall. with actors under careful instructions from professionals.
‘The thing you always come back to when you
think about climbing mountains is the question of
why people do it. he says. ‘Look at it from an outside eye. and you assume it‘s about death. and being in the presence of it. But any mountaineer you talk to will tend to reject that. They'll say it’s more about life. People say. 'l feel more in contact with life and more human when I'm on the mountain.‘ We are fascinated by it. There's a vast literature on it. and people buy these books in numbers. But I don‘t think there‘s an answer to the question of why people do it. and that. in a way. makes it more interesting. We have to provide our own answers.‘ Greig finds a spiritual lack in contemporary Western society to be one of the keys to this enigma. ‘Religion is part of it. Mountaineering is
always talked about in parallel with a discussion of
transcendence and spirituality. This is particularly true of Himalayan mountaineering because of the peculiar coincidence that it is associated with Tibetan Buddhism and Sherpas. There are links with the West. too. with the tradition of Romanticism and transcendence. ()ddly. this very particular activity has a universal relevance beyond itself.‘
But how do you represent a group of people reaching such heights‘.’ ‘Well. i regard 8.000 Metres as an experiment. The mountain. and the idea of a mountain. is almost a narrative in itself in our minds. so it‘s a story. from my point of view. that doesn‘t tell a story. The subject is inherently
dramatic. life threatening. so it would be bathetic if
I tried to add more drama to it. My job is almost to take the drama out of it.‘
Fair enough. bttt how does one represent such drama on a climbing wall at the Tramway? The fact that this new form of the sport is a popular pursuit is illustrated by the opening of the grand new climbing wall at Ratho. near lidinburgh. And it will no doubt be attended by many less dedicated folk than mountaineers. a purely casual pursuit by. if you will. social climbers. Is a climbing wall a substitute for a mountain? ‘Nof says (ireig. ‘But you can‘t represent such an ttnrepresentable situation. You have to find another way of doing it. The deeper meaning must come from the audience. The problem is. how do you represent someone reaching an 8.000 metre summit. given that in reality their whole body shape is obscured by the many layers of clothing against the intense cold. and their faces are covered with masks. In reality they'd move very slowly. about one step every two minutes. and they would not speak. It‘s about poetic physicality. not realism.~
This is an effect that Greig. combined with Suspect Cttltttre. can achieve with distinction. if experience is anything to go by. And even I‘m convinced. All the same. I wonder why we don‘t appreciate ottr cityscapes. the work of the hands of humankind. more. There‘s a great beauty to an industrial landscape etched against an evening sky. bttt as the work of humans it‘s art. not nature. which is merely there. tragically untampered with by the glorious touch of humankind. Love nature if you want to. bttt I say if it moves. shoot it. and if it doesn‘t. chop it down. I might be in a minority. bttt I‘ll be joining the rest of you at Tramway. for what looks to be a special piece of theatre.
8000 Metres is on at the Tramway from Sat 24 Jan-Sat 7 Feb
The ultimate cliffhanger: a climbing wall buiit at Tramway especially for the Suspect Culture production
8—22 Jan 2004 TH. LIST 13