David Greig’s recent short play, The Letter of Last Resort, showed his willingness to adopt subject matter from contexts south of the border. However, the National Theatre of Scotland’s decision to revive two of Greig’s earlier pieces, Yellow Moon and Monster in the Hall, effectively re-orients Greig away from Westminster caricatures and back towards his native Scotland. As such, both plays emblematise familiar aspects of Scottish playwriting—inclusivity, class consciousness, linguistic vulgarity and so on—but by combining these with a persistently witty brand of self-commentary, Greig reinvests a familiar landscape with his characteristic exuberance.
His aesthetic approach is matched by the intentions of this production. After its run at the Citizens, the plays will tour both theatres and schools, in a bid to capture the hearts and minds of British adults and youth—and, in particular, to convert the latter group to the possibilities of theatre.
Accordingly, both plays explore the lives of young adults, albeit from very different angles. Yellow Moon is the more fantastical story of Stag Lee Macalinden (a teenage version of the blues anti-hero Stagger Lee) and Silent Leila, his studious and self-harming counterpart; The Monster in the Hall glimpses a pivotal day in the life of Duck Macatarsney, another teenager who cares for her MS-afflicted father, works in her local Sainsbury’s, and dreams of becoming a writer.
Initially, I was a little wary of a specific appeal to young adults. Any production designed to appeal to a demographic not only limits its own artistic goals from the outset; it also runs the risk of trying too hard to please archetypes rather than people. Moreover, the combination of education and entertainment which commonly accompanies art for teenagers is very rarely an effective one. And while these pitfalls were largely avoided, there was still something educative about the entire exercise, albeit education without condescension and moralising. Throughout, there was a sense that theatre itself – in particular, its capacity to communicate with people in a refreshingly direct and honest way – was being demonstrated.
Both plays explore the possibility of a dialogic relationship between audience and performer; correspondingly, the decision was evidently made to do away with props, lighting, and other modes of creating artifice. The focus was on the human body as near-sole conduit for transmission. The cast handled this responsibility with impressive capability. It would be wrong to single out any particular member for praise; both plays required all to work as a single unit. With Yellow Moon, actors dipped in and out of character and commentator, in order to reconstruct a more or less linear narrative of events. The Monster in the Hall went a little further, and allowed the cast to extend their storytelling repertoire even further into the realm of physicality, to reconstruct computer game fantasies and recreate inwards emotional states using tableaux. The juxtaposition of both evidenced the multiple uses for actors on a stage, and the potential for said bodies to entertain with all of their numerous facets.
It would certainly have been hard to go wrong with the scripts themselves; again, Greig’s reputation as a playwright of considerable talent is evidenced by the fact that these plays should not, in actual fact, be confined to a solely teenage audience (though it’s also refreshing to see this particular audience treated to unapologetic bouts of swearing). Sides are not picked: the more minor adult characters are as empathic and rounded as their younger protagonists. Any didacticism inherent within the plays themselves can equally be applied to adults also. Greig afficionadoes may notice a minor difference in quality between Yellow Moon and Monster: the latter is marginally more successful because it deals with social issues in a far less heavy-handed manner.
By placing them side by side, however, the production allows us two glimpses of the same writer at different stages in his career. This provides an exercise in comparison – an interesting (if perhaps unintentional) dimension to the double-bill, and certainly something to add to its numerous successes.