Europe - A Play for Today

As a revival of Europe opens at Leeds Playhouse, Nick Ahad talks to playwright David Greig about its relevance 24 years on.

Europe by David Greig is on at Leeds Playhouse.
Europe by David Greig is on at Leeds Playhouse.

In 2007 David Greig’s play Europe was staged at Dundee Rep and in her review for the Guardian Lyn Gardner wrote about the startling relevance of the play.

The play was already over a decade old by then. Now it is 24 years old, having received its premiere in 1994 at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh.

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So surely by now it has lost some of its relevance?

“It’s odd, but it feels like it has never stopped being relevant. Sadly,” says Greig.

“I thought when I wrote it I was reflecting on Yugoslavia and the break up of the state which led to a wave of people arriving in places 
like Britain from Bosnia and Croatia. It did not occur to me then that it would continue to be so relevant.

“A few years after the premiere it was easy to see it as a play about Afghanistan. Now it could be a play about Syria and the small towns into which the people who are fleeing from those places arrive. By now this play should be a history piece, but unfortunately, it isn’t.”

It is startlingly prescient, as we head to what many believe to be the cliff-edge that is Brexit, that Greig should have written a play in 1994 called Europe that would tackle so many of the issues that has brought us to this point in history. As we watch boats full of people fleeing war-torn homes cross the Mediterranean, perhaps the most startling thing about Greig’s Europe is that it might have been written the day before yesterday, rather than two decades ago.

Greig’s plays have appeared on most of Britain’s major stages and have been seen around the world. As artistic director of Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre, he is one of a vanishingly small number of playwrights to also run theatres.

Big political themes have been at the heart of Greig’s plays since he began writing, starting with his first major success of Europe – which came out of his travels when he was a younger man.

“In the early 1990s, shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, I spent a couple of years travelling around Europe via train, like a lot of young people at the time. I was incredibly taken with the fact that I might travel via train to Transylvania, it all opened up to me.

“I was in Budapest and we were heading to Romania, which had gone through a revolution.

“Before we arrived in Romania, I was trying to buy some cigarettes and I wanted to buy a lot, because I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get them in Romania.

“There was a guy who had been helping me and he asked why I wanted to buy so many, so I explained that I was going to Romania and wasn’t sure if I would be able to buy cigarettes there.

“His face just fell. He told me that he was Romanian and I vividly remember him saying ‘we’re not savages. We are European too’.

“I hadn’t meant to be offensive, but it made me realise that perhaps I didn’t think of Romanian as being Europe for some reason.”

There was a second moment that provided a catalyst for Greig to write Europe and it was during the break up of Yugoslavia.

“I remember watching footage on TV of the first war in Europe 
since the Second World War and seeing people being loaded onto buses and being bussed away, which of course is a euphemism for ethnic cleansing.

“Then I realised that they were being put onto these buses outside what looked like community centres.

“The news seemed to want to make the story about people who are ‘not like us’ and that this was a result of ancient ethnic tensions.

“That was the driving narrative – that they are not like us and this would never be allowed to happen where we were, watching on, but they were dressed in the same clothes that I might have been wearing, getting on a coach that was like a coach I recognised, outside a community centre.”

The third thing that coalesced with these first two, the thing that convinced Greig to write Europe, was passing through towns where the train didn’t stop.

The question he was left with was what happens to the people in those towns when war, or refugees from war, arrive?

“This is as much a play about Motherwell, or any Scottish town where the train just whizzes through and people are left with the feeling of being left behind or being unsettled by the arrival of others,” he says.

Europe by David Greig is at Leeds Playhouse, from October 12 to November 3. Tickets from the box office on 0113 2137700 or online via www.