David Greig on the Lyceum's new season: "There are risks involved, of course"

Faced with a choice between a very modest post-pandemic season or a bold return to full-scale productions, the Lyceum’s artistic director decided to come out all guns blazing, he tells Joyce McMillan

David Greig, Zinnie Harris and Wils Wilson

The prince wakes up, and the world has changed; so much so that he decides that life itself is just a dream. It wasn’t planned that the Lyceum Theatre’s new production of Jo Clifford’s version of Life Is A Dream – the great Spanish Golden Age drama by Pedro Calderon – would be the first show to reopen the theatre after a world-shaking 18 months of pandemic; in fact, it was originally supposed to be part of the 2020 Spring Season.

Yet for all that, it’s difficult to imagine a play that fits the moment more perfectly, as the Lyceum announces a 2021-22 season of six new productions and a festival, that will carry us – pandemic permitting – through into next summer. First seen in 1635, Life Is A Dream is an earthy yet surreal stage poem that transports its characters across the face of Europe in their quests for truth or happiness; and both the Lyceum’s artistic director David Greig and associate Wils Wilson, who will direct the show, are thrilled at the prospect of staging this epic piece, with a company of nine actors, on the great open studio stage built over the Lyceum stalls during lockdown.

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“Life Is A Dream will be our last production on that open stage, before we remove it for Christmas,” says Greig, “but we think it’s a perfect arena for this amazing play, which depends so much on the audience’s imagination, and on the power of language to create new worlds. It’s only been about three months since we got the go-ahead to return to producing theatre at all, after 15 months of closure; and we had the choice of either going very small, and reducing the risks to almost nothing, or putting together a full-scale season, and opening it with a big play like this.

“So there are risks involved, of course; and there are no guarantees about what the future might hold. But thanks to strategic help from Creative Scotland when we really needed it – and the Scottish Government standing behind that, of course – we’ve come through in reasonable shape; and it’s a great feeling now, to sense the creative energy really beginning to flow again.”

The Lyceum’s lockdown survival has not been without controversy, of course; it enters the post-lockdown world with a smaller staff than 18 months ago, after a process which involved some compulsory redundancies, and considerable ill-feeling. It has, though, employed impressive numbers of freelance artists on its various lockdown projects; and it’s difficult to resist the appeal of a new season featuring such a vivid burst of new work. Life Is A Dream will open on 29 October, with top Scottish actors Alison Peebles and Lorn Macdonald leading the cast; and it will be followed – with the theatre restored to its normal shape – by a brand new Christmas show called Christmas Dinner, especially created at short notice by writer Rob Evans, and Gill Robertson, artistic director of the multi-award-winning Catherine Wheels children’s company.

Then in the New Year, the Lyceum will roll out a sequence of new plays, opening in February with Lyceum associate director Zinnie Harris’s production of her own new play The Scent Of Roses, a La-Ronde-shaped drama that begins with a personal conflict over lies and truth in a marriage, but soon builds out – through a linked series of encounters – into an exploration of the huge themes of public trust, unpunished lying, and competing world-views that have plagued our political life during the pandemic.

In March, the Lyceum will host a festival of new works-in-progress and scratch nights featuring The L20, the 21 emerging artists appointed as associates of the theatre last year, in the depths of lockdown. In April – after two years of unprecedented debate over the role of the UK, including Scotland, in the history of slavery – the Lyceum will stage The Meaning Of Zong, a new play by Hamilton star Giles Terera, co-produced with Bristol Old Vic, that looks back to 1783, and the moment when a shocking massacre aboard the slave ship Zong triggered a court case that galvanised the anti-slavery movement in Britain. In May, Wils Wilson will direct Red Ellen, a new play by poet and playwright Caroline Bird about the legendary Labour movement figure Ellen Wilkinson, who became a cabinet minister in the Attlee government of 1945, and whose life reflects many all-too-contemporary tensions between campaigning radicalism and the compromises of power.

And in June, the season will end with a revival of Tom McGrath’s Laurel And Hardy, a beautiful exploration of truth and illusion, life and art, directed by Tony Cownie, and once again featuring Steven McNicoll and Barnaby Power, who played the same roles at the Lyceum back in 2005, but are now much closer to the ages of Stan and Ollie themselves, at the point when the story begins. The season will feature pay-what-you-can previews, and distanced performances for those still nervous of crowded spaces; and the Lyceum will continue to make its work much more widely available online, as a result of all that has been learned in the last 18 months.

“I think there is a common theme across many of these plays,” said Greig, “and it’s to do with truth, lies and illusion, and how difficult it is to find a clear sense of reality when we are alone and isolated. Theatre is all about telling stories and creating illusions, of course. But there is a huge difference between experiencing those things alone, and coming together to share stories that help us to understand our world, and to imagine it anew. Theatre brings us together to share that power; and right now, that makes it the most necessary art form in the world.”

For full details of Lyceum’s new season, see https://lyceum.org.uk

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