Joyce McMillan: David Greig's Lyceum is going to grow for it

David Greig, new artistic director of the Lyceum, has unveiled a thrilling, ambitious and expanded new season

New artistic director of the Royal Lyceum, David Greig (front row, third left), with some of the actors, directors and writers involved in his first season, back row, left to right: Karine Polwart, Douglas Maxwell, Zinnie Harris, Ramin Gray, Janice Parker, Max Webster, Cora Bissett, Jenny Lindsay and Dominic Hill.Front row, from left: John Browne, Amanda Gaughan, Greig, Wils Wilson, Daniela Nardini and Linda McLean. Picture: Ian Rutherford

At the Royal Lyceum Theatre’s offices on Edinburgh’s Grindlay Street, the company’s incoming artistic director, David Greig, has a metaphor in mind, when he talks about the changeover between himself and his predecessor, Mark Thomson. “It doesn’t matter how well-prepared it is,” says Greig, whose appointment was announced last September. “There’s still always this moment when it’s like stepping from one boat to another, that wobble, that moment of ‘oops, what’s happening now?’”

And if this is the week when Greig has to make that leap, and start charting his own course as artistic director, then he has guaranteed an even more exciting transition by ensuring that the latest version of the good ship Lyceum will be a larger, racier, and more ambitiously experimental model than anyone had quite anticipated, before this week’s announcement of the theatre’s 2016-17 season.

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“The point is,” says Greig, “that with the recent 17 per cent cut in our Creative Scotland grant, this theatre could be on the brink of going into a respectable managed decline, where our annual total of productions drifts down from seven, to five, to four, our full production capacity gets harder to maintain, and we end up just being mainly a receiving house.

“Mark Thomson’s response to the cut, though, was to refuse to reduce the theatre’s programme. Instead, he pushed the cuts back a year, and invested in a really exciting 50th anniversary season, including his own Waiting For Godot with Brian Cox and Bill Paterson, The Weir, The Crucible, The Iliad, and all the other great, ambitious shows we’ve seen this year.

“And the result has been a season that has broken all box-office records at the Lyceum, and left the theatre in a far stronger position than anyone predicted. So I decided, in planning my first programme, to take a leaf out of Mark’s book, and insist on expanding rather than contracting, and trying to grow our audience and our presence in the city, rather than agreeing to diminish it. Edinburgh is a great world city, a capital city, a centre of science, law, education, politics, enlightenment; and I want to build up partnerships with all those areas of Edinburgh life, and make the Lyceum into a place that plays a dynamic role in our civic life here, as citizens, and voters, and human beings.”

A key member of the “yes” campaign during the 2014 referendum – but one who always recognised the weight of the arguments on both sides – Greig has always been inspired by the ancient Greek idea of theatre as a key public forum for the city and the nation. So it’s perhaps not surprising that after an Edinburgh International Festival studio production of Karine Polwart’s new Midlothian monologue-with-songs Wind Resistance, scripted by Greig and directed by Wils Wilson, the Lyceum season will begin, in September, with a visit from Dundee Rep’s smash-hit 2015 version of The Cheviot, The Stag, And The Black, Black Oil, 7:84 Scotland’s iconic 1972 show about the fundamental Scottish issues of land ownership, land use, and the exploitation of our huge natural resources.

The Cheviot will be followed by a new version, adapted and part-written by Greig himself, of Aeschylus’s 2,500-year-old but hugely topical drama The Suppliant Women, about a group of 50 women refugees who arrive in Greece from Egypt, seeking asylum; and then a new production of April De Angelis’s recent West End hit Jumpy, about a middle-class mother in midlife crisis, starring Daniela Nardini and directed by Cora Bissett.

Then, after an Anthony Neilson version of Alice In Wonderland for Christmas, there will be a visit from the Malthouse Theatre of Melbourne with Picnic At Hanging Rock, a new production of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, a co-production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever directed by the Citizens’ Dominic Hill, a Scottish premiere of Caryl Churchill’s cloning play A Number (presented with the Edinburgh International Science Festival), two new plays from Douglas Maxwell and Linda McLean, and a new staging of Austrian playwright Peter Handke’s great wordless street-scene The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other, with a cast that will include as many as 100 ordinary Edinburgh citizens, playing most of the play’s 450 roles.

“That’s a season of 11 main-house shows,”says Greig, “up from seven last year. And this main house programme, which we’re announcing this week, isn’t the whole story; there will also be Sunday variety nights at the Lyceum throughout the year, and a programme of smaller-scale work, Lyceum In The City, that we’ll be hoping to take into spaces across Edinburgh where the Lyceum has never appeared before.

“Of course, with a programme on that scale, involving four world premieres, there is a level of risk involved. But I think this is the kind of programme that Edinburgh needs and deserves. Among other things, there are at least two shows – The Suppliant Women and The Hour We Knew Nothing Of Each Other – that will demand real performing involvement from members of our audience, and I hope that sense of bringing the citizens onto the Lyceum stage will continue to be part of our work.

“If it doesn’t work, then next year we’ll have to rethink, fast. But here we are, trying to push against the mood of decline, and maintain this theatre as a big centre of production, an engine of cultural activity and thought that can spread its energy throughout the city, and beyond. And we hope that Edinburgh will want that, and respond to it; so that together with our audience, we can move into a phase where the Lyceum becomes – even more than now – a place where the city comes together to have a laugh, to grieve, to think about the huge changes we’re living through, and to begin to understand them, together.” ■

• The Royal Lyceum Theatre’s 2016-17 season runs from 4 August until late June,