Writer: David Greig
Director: Elizabeth Newman
‘Biodh gaol agad orm, tha gaol agam ort’. It’s how all the best love stories go, isn’t it? A connection forged through differences and gradual discovery. That and awakening tied within the House of the Dead. Previously David Greig’s acclaimed audio production Adventures with the Painted People compelled listeners over the waves of BBC Radio 3 with its narrative of centuries-old love and culture set on the River Tay. And now, the idyllic settings of the Pitlochry amphitheatre bring live, in-person theatre back to Scotland.
Kept a prisoner for sacrifice at the hands of a Pictish witch, Roman officer Lucius at first quite rightly frets over the dangerous intentions of the heavily pregnant woman. But true to her kin, there’s something more to Eithne, something beyond the supernatural. Cunning, sharp and interested in a peaceful resolution of the Romans invasion of Caledonia, Eithne has no intention of sacrifice. Instead, she seeks Lucius’ aid in healing her dreams, learning the Roman way, and in return, Lucius begins to appreciate the openness for the ‘older’ way of life, one with fewer straight roads.
In morphing back into the realms of live-physical theatre, Elizabeth Newman channels an extraordinary sense of elementalism into the production. Terrifically aided in part by Pitlochry’s gorgeous outdoor amphitheatre, Adventures with the Painted People stays authentic to the Pictish roots with a relationship to the earth, wind, fire, and air. All captured in the staging of sand, pyrotechnics, flowing streams and of course, the brisk winds of the amphitheatre. In a moment of almost prophetic solace and approval, two swallows dive between the performers and back into the wooded shade. But of course, more than the physical plane of elements, Newman and performer Kirsty Stuart draw forth the spiritual aspect of Grieg’s script.
Without question, the relationship, and quasi-political nuances between aspects of life, death, work, and gender come to a discourse between Eithne and Lucius. Their backgrounds, though different, find cross-sections as they trade experiences and dreams, the teacher becoming the student as they learn from one another. The chemistry is everything, and the runtime allows for a tangible formation between Stuart and Nicholas Karimi. Quicker with bards, Stuart generally is the instigator with Karimi reacting, playing an almost ‘straight’ role to the comedy. The pair capture the flickering embers of respect and acceptance of one another, Karimi carrying this masculine vulnerability as he demonstrates the sensitivity and willingness to open to Stuart’s steadfast control and presence.
Refusing to unshackle itself from the confines of its audio origins, the sound structure and imbuement of spoken word, song and lyricism in Grieg’s script demonstrate fluidity, transforming with relative ease between platforms. In moments, the euphoric ripples of birdsong, whistles over the summer branches of ripples of the river below mingle with Ben Occhipinti’s sound design as the past uproots itself in contemporary Scotland.
Greig’s latest original historical piece since 2013, the idea of a tenacious, and emboldened leader from Perthshire coming to loggers with the smooth talker from down south very much instigates the idea that Adventures doesn’t push the envelope as hard as it could. In specks, the writing leans into the humour a tad heavily, evidently a relic of the necessity to connect and provide quip short-cuts for listeners rather than a stage audience. Greig’s noted infusion of sarcasm, bluntness and word-play ripples across his work, and Adventures is no different. The blending of more expected gags with spectacularly underhanded jabs and linguistic jokes approaches a broad range, but don’t always land on the mark.
Stemming itself in the history of the land, from the Salmon to the fauna, Adventures with the Painted People marks a complete creative circle: a newly created script with a place in the growing audio production world, as an answer to venue closures, re-invigorates itself on the stage it was crafted for. Rolling itself in the steams of a Roman bathhouse, and the hallowed earth of an ancient temple for the dead, Adventures emerges with an ancient beating heart of O Caledonia for a contemporary and ravenous audience.
Runs at the Pitlochry Amphitheatre until 4 July 2021
Image: Pitlochry Festival Theatre