David Greig on his new play Two Sisters: ‘This has come from me... it’s like stripping naked on stage’
Can there be anything more British than a seaside caravan holiday? Surely this is the only nation whose idea of escape is staying on a neatly laid-out plot facing a sea breeze while politely tolerating the neighbours and hoping for sun.
But not so. When playwright David Greig showed his new play, Two Sisters, to theatres in Sweden and Australia, they recognised the scenario instantly. He had based this wistful comedy on his memories of childhood stays in Lossiemouth and with his own children in North Berwick, not to mention his familiarity with Pettycur Bay near where he lives and the subject of the BBC reality TV series Life On The Bay. But his international colleagues said their audiences would know exactly what he was talking about.
“The director of a theatre company in Melbourne read it and said, ‘This is Australia!’ and I can tell you exactly where it would take place,” says the playwright. “Then when Kitte Wagner from Malmö Stadtsteater read it she said, ‘This is Sweden! I can show you exactly where it is.’ Who knew? It turns out that caravan parks and slightly hippyish charismatic men are more universal than you would have thought.”
As the title suggests, the play is about two sisters: Emma is a successful lawyer in her 30s who has returned to the caravan park where they spent their childhood summers to write a novel before the birth of her first child; big sister Amy has found herself in need of a bed after being caught with another man by her husband.
In Wils Wilson’s production, they are played by Shauna McDonald and Jessica Hardwick, two excellent Scottish actors whose off-stage friendship feeds into their sisterly closeness on stage. They are joined by Swedish actor Erik Olsson who plays Lance, the site’s eternally young DJ/caretaker.
As the two women reflect on their holiday memories, a 15-strong chorus of teenagers will create a sense of campsite life. Greig describes the tone as “comic melancholy”, the humour arising from the gap between the people we thought we would be and those we actually became. After its run in Edinburgh, Wilson will direct a Swedish translation at Malmö Stadtsteater, with Olsson reprising his role in an all-Swedish cast.
It is Greig’s first original play to be staged since 2021 when Adventures With The Painted People played at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. That is not to say this prolific dramatist has been slacking. Since becoming artistic director of Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum in 2016, he has turned out adaptations of The Suppliant Women, Local Hero, Solaris, Under Another Sky and Touching the Void. In the past few months alone, he has directed Peter Arnott’s Group Portrait In A Summer Landscape and published his debut novel, Columba’s Bones.
Yet despite such a wealth of experience, he says Two Sisters has left him feeling exposed. Until now, he has resisted programming one of his own original plays at the Lyceum, but having Malmö Stadtsteater as co-producer gave him a commercial justification to do it.
“It’s like stripping naked on stage,” he says. “With an adaptation, there is always something to hide behind, but this has come from me.”
The play came about under pressure. Greig was running a youth-theatre workshop in London for Actors Touring Company and needed material. He settled in a café for breakfast at 8.30am and began writing. When the workshop started at 10am, he had an opening scene.
“I was up against the wire and the material came in the form of this long scene between two sisters,” he says. “When we read it, it really flew. You could tell it was right. The director Ramin Gray said, ‘You’re writing in a new font.’ He was right. I’d written the scene in Times New Roman and up until that point, I’d always written in Helvetica.”
With a new font came a new approach. “It’s the first time I wrote naturalistically,” he says. “It feels like two real people talking. Other than that, I’d always had a theatrical language – like The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart, which is written in poetry, or Dunsinane, which is written in a heightened style.”
The combination of naturalism, comedy and a title that sounds very like Three Sisters, Anton Chekhov’s 1901 classic, suggests Greig has been writing with the Russian dramatist in mind. When I say as much to him, he pauses. He has been here before.
When he directed Arnott’s Group Portrait In A Summer Landscape, he and the playwright were open about Chekhov’s influence. With its large cast, country-house setting and elegiac tone, that play felt like a 20th-century Scottish answer to The Cherry Orchard. The parallels were no accident.
But Greig now worries about the danger of audiences viewing one play through the lens of another. “Directing Peter’s play, I probably should have shut up about Chekhov because then everybody thinks, ‘Well, that’s not as good as Chekhov.’ If we’d never mentioned it, people might have turned up and gone, ‘Hmmm, quite Chekhovian.’”
It is true that Two Sisters has its Chekhovian aspects, but he would rather people discovered that for themselves. He admits to planting in-jokes for Chekhov fans, but also says the fourth-wall world inhabited by the three central characters is in contrast to the youth-theatre chorus talking directly to the audience. It means the play has a texture all its own.
“But, no,” he says. “Chekhov captures a sublime, universal comic melancholy that I think is the most perfect summation of the experience of living that I’ve ever encountered. So, yes, I humbly try to learn from that.”