Nan Shepherd: Naked and Unashamed – Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Reviewer: Dominic Corr

Writers: Richard Baron and Ellie Zeegen

Director: Richard Baron

Sometimes, particularly when covering a piece so entuned with the life of one of Scotland’s most celebrated writers of prose and verse, there’s a temptation to go toe-to-toe with the quality of their vocab and reputation. But the truth is that Richard Baron and Ellie Zeeghen’s Nan Shepherd: Naked and Unashamed is quite simply put, lovely.

Time is a breeze here, flowing rapidly through the Pitlochry studio, catching the audience as rustles, carrying them along the journey of Aberdeenshire-born Nan Shepherd, who would quite possibly be immensely puzzled at the prospect of entire pieces of theatre celebrating her work and life give her indifference to her contemporary place. The strewn and ramshackle memories of Shepherd’s life are seen through Natalie Fern, Elizabeth Newman and Nick Trueman’s wooden set; fractured memories of Shepherd’s time in the classroom, by her writing desk, laying nude on mountainsides or perched against a piano all lingering together, assailed by flickering lights, the dying sparks of a brilliant mind reaching its final days.

For a mainstream reception, it wasn’t until most of her celebrated work, The Living Mountain, written in the forties but not published until 1977, that brought her experiences of the Cairngorms to the world in a manner most had never perceived, and has become a staple of writing around the natural world. Here, Naked and Unashamed, looks to piece together the woman behind the five-pound note: and fill in the gaps which are often cluttered with the romanticism and foggy-mist of the Scottish landscape. Irene Allan’s is an evergreen performance; a spirited and enquiring youth embraced by an older, still-spirited woman in a story which spans the friendships, love, and loss Shepherd encountered with the likes of Neil Gunn, Hugh MacDiarmid, and philosopher John Macmurray, the latter imbued with energy by David Rankine, co-starring as a variety of additional roles throughout the production, each balanced and treated with an appropriate significance and weight. Perhaps at their most attuned with the audience in their hope-filled time as a young schoolteacher, Sheperd’s other true passion, Allan quizzes and instructs the audience in recitation, and verse, and encourages a few of those back-of-class mumbles to get stuck in. Their movement and verbatim, all gorgeously framed through Peter Fennell’s lighting design, catapults the audience through time (a blackboard and chalk used a simple reference to the date), Baron’s direction using the studio space to canny effect as Allen swings around support poles as a youngster, or Rankine strides through the many entrances as new and intriguing roles.

So, next time audiences have a gander at the five-pound note, they’ll see beyond this two-dimensional prominence Shepherd has. More than a face on currency, or the name on the spine of a book, director Baron and co-writing Zeegen (of Firebrand Theatre Company) capture the transitioning shades of the bonnie lassie who grew into a pioneer of Scotland’s literature landscape, a woman richly deserving of as much praise her work found and finds it once more in the hillsides of Perthshire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Studio space.

Runs until 6 July 2024 | Image: Fraser Band

The Reviews Hub Score

Quite simply lovely

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