Two in the bed - David Greig and Gordon McIntyre
DAVID GREIG is improvising his new play as if it had been written by Harold Pinter.
"– Let's go to the Grassmarket.
– Shall we?
–I don't know, why shouldn't we?
–I don't know.
–I'd rather go to Canonmills where there is a pub I know."
That, he assures me, is what Midsummer will not be like. At this point in 2008, the prolific playwright is not in the mood for the weighty and the enigmatic. A better starting point would be something light and frivolous like a pop song. And if it were a pop song it would be something lo-fi and literary, like a track by the Edinburgh band ballboy.
Exactly like that, in fact, because sitting next to Greig in the caf-bar of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre is Gordon McIntyre, Mr ballboy himself, his collaborator on Midsummer. "The whole show is a ballboy song," says Greig. "Because the characteristic ballboy song has a story that's particular, eccentric and full of detail, it has a driving emotion and it has a chorus that captures that emotion. The show is like a long song that keeps breaking out into choruses of singing."
The show's subtitle is "a play with music", which can be read in two ways: one, that it is a musical (though not like they make them on Broadway); and two, that the team are playing with music, having fun, doing what they like. "We decided to do it entirely for our own pleasure," says Greig, whose translation of August Strindberg's altogether more serious Creditors has just opened to considerable acclaim in London. "Gordon doesn't need to be doing theatre, he has ballboy. I had plenty of work, I didn't need to be doing another show. So the only point of doing this was if it would be a laugh or pleasurable for us."
Greig first got in touch with McIntyre when he was editing a book in which Scottish writers explained what they liked about England. He'd been drawn to ballboy's homespun storytelling and was particularly taken with a number called 'I Hate Scotland'. He asked the musician for an essay, but secretly had something bigger in mind. "I was listening to a lot of lo-fi and new folk and wondered why theatre music is never the sort of music I listen to," he says. "I lobbed that question gently towards Gordon and we found we were both interested in that notion: what would a lo-fi, indie musical be like?"
With the help of some seed funding from the National Theatre of Scotland, they spent a couple of weeks in a rehearsal room developing ideas with actors Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon. The story (about a couple's lost weekend after a one-night stand in Edinburgh) and the rough-and-ready, low-budget approach sounded just like what the Traverse's artistic director Dominic Hill was looking for when he declared his intention to use the studio theatre for more experimental productions. "It's very small scale, with just two actors playing the instruments on stage," says Greig, who is also directing. "The budget is minuscule. I haven't worked on a budget this low since I was a student. That's good because it keeps the sense of play. Playing is at the heart of this whole project."
They agreed McIntyre's songs would not attempt to move the story forward but, in the best pop song tradition, would deal in emotions and amplify the mood of the moment. "We were never going to get theatrical music out of me," says McIntyre, who is making use of the existing ballboy track 'There Are Only Inches Between Us, But There Might As Well Be Mountains And Trees' and an instrumental arrangement of 'Above The Clouds The Sun Is Always Shining' in an otherwise all-new score.
"There isn't the sense of singing the story forward that you get in some musicals. I've written a huge amount of love songs for ballboy that I've had to explain to people: 'Well, that didn't actually happen to me. The falling in love did, but the storytelling bit didn't.'
"The songs in this show are more like that: using completely different scenarios to illustrate the point that we're talking about."
Greig says: "I would call him up and say: 'I need a song of people wanting to hurtle towards oblivion.' By the next morning there it was, and it's a cracking song."
For McIntyre, who is weighing up whether to introduce the new songs into the ballboy set or to record them as a sideline project, it has been a revelatory experience.
"The great thing about being in a band is you write your own songs and you do your own thing," he says. "I would never want to trade that, but it's a great intellectual exercise to write songs this way. It's a challenge, but I like working close to the deadline and I'm quite good at self-editing. Also, in this environment I'm quite open to handing over the songs and having them tweaked. That's new to me. I'm really enjoying that part of the process where it's a team effort."
Greig predicts the tone will be somewhere between that of Caledonia Dreaming, the happy piece of devolutionary Edinburgh satire he wrote for 7.84 in 1999, and Gobbo, the delirious CATS award-winning piece of children's entertainment he wrote for the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006.
"It's a romantic comedy," he says. "This couple come together at midsummer and have a lost weekend. They're in the midsummer of their lives; after this point the days are drawing in. Midsummer is a bittersweet moment for all those reasons.
"So, if the question is can you have a lo-fi indie musical, I think the answer is yes. It's not going to be a searing analysis of why Wall Street is in the mess that it's in. It doesn't have a take on Iraq. This show is nakedly emotional. If you would like to have a Pinter version, hie thee elsewhere."v
Midsummer (A Play With Songs), Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, October 24-November 15 www.traverse.co.uk, www.ballboymusic.com
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