Through a gap in the trees you can only see the crest of Ben Vrackie, the ‘speckled mountain’, in the evening sun. The air is slightly sharper as the heat of the day begins to wane. A mare who notices his indication composes his twilight song – a musical prelude to the outdoor play we are going to see.
This is a scene that can hardly change since AD85 – one that features Eithne, the Pictish wizard in David Greig’s Adventures with the painted people, would know. And that’s partly the point of Greig’s play, set in first-century Scotland, which reopens Pitlochry Festival Theater in Highland Perthshire.
With indoor performances still impractical in Scotland (theaters will have to keep a distance of 2.5 meters between audience members), Painted People start a new outdoor stage. It is an intimate wooden amphitheater, high on the hillside garden next to the theater building and reached by winding roads surrounded by rhododendrons. It is one of several outdoor spaces launched by PFT artistic director Elizabeth Newman. On a beautiful summer evening it is an idyllic setting; It’s also one that draws us closer to Greig’s characters, whose stories take place about the forest and rivers of the area.
The open-air theater has come into its own over the past 18 months. Pitlochry Festival Theater joins several other indoor venues in the UK that have created alfresco stage in an effort to keep working despite Covid restrictions. The Royal Shakespeare Company, HOME in Manchester, the Arcola Theater in London and the Edinburgh International Festival are out this summer with purposeful arenas.
A wooden amphitheater (the Thorington Theater) originated in the Suffolk Bushveld, while the company HandleBards cycled and performed throughout the country. Macbeth. In Powys, Wales, you can watch drama in a live mini-Globe woven from willow; at the Minack in Cornwall, the Atlantic Ocean is a beautiful backdrop. Elsewhere, antique venues are on the rise – such as the medieval amphitheater in St Just west of Cornwall, which features an ambitious 14th-century Cornish production. Ordinalia mystery plays this fall.
But outdoor drama offers something more than a practical solution to current constraints and a pleasant evening (weather permitting). Sharing stories under the stars not only fosters a relationship with those around us, but also with the audience of long ago – Elizabethans, Romans, ancient Greeks – and everyone who gathered around a fire to tell lofty stories .
The connection is the main and central point in Greig’s playful drama (first broadcast on BBC Radio 3 last year), which causes a powerful clash of cultures through a close encounter between two people. Lucius, a Roman officer, is imprisoned by a Pictish woman, Eithne, in a small crannog, or on stilts above the local loch. He fears the worst – and Eithne indeed teases him with the possibility that he may be sacrificed. But her goal is more pragmatic: she wants to learn Latin so that she can negotiate with the Roman governor on behalf of her people.
As the two inches approach over the next few meetings, Greig explores big questions about lifestyle and legacy. Lucius talks about buildings, roads and trade transactions and sketches plans and timelines on the sandy floor. These are largely foreign concepts to Eithne, whose people travel by river, whose culture is oral, and to whom Lucius’ desire to leave a mark on the world seems incomprehensible.
To a modern audience, Lucius’ world feels familiar, Eithne is a lost way of life that is more in touch with the natural world. But Greig is too wise a writer to show a simple black-and-white stand-up. The interest lies in the ambivalence of the characters: Lucius may boast about the power and civilization of the Roman Empire, but as a quiet, poetic man he is at odds with his military pride and rigid hierarchy. Eithne is dumbfounded at the priorities of the empire, but is tempted by the possibilities of written culture and underfloor heating. She is also well aware of the games she has to play to maintain her independence in her own world.
Behind the whole play lurks the irony that both of these cultures, brought back to living life through drama, are long gone, the power of Rome that can now be laid in ruins. Questions about permanence and transience throughout the play: common with Brian Friel’s great Translations, it affects colonization, the fragility of even the greatest civilizations and the impact of the past on the present. At a time when our own “normality” has been raised and history, global networks and our relationship with nature are strongly discussed, the concern of the play feels timely.
Elizabeth Newman’s lithe production is at the forefront of the resonance and celebrates the play’s witty streak. Kirsty Stuart’s warm, sparkling Eithne wears jeans and boots under her leather skirt; Nicholas Karimi’s careful Lucius is wearing brown pants that he could buy online today. But the touches of modernity contrast with an elementary set – a circle of sand, a jug of water, a small fire – that wanders back to the oldest forms of storytelling. It is a fusion of production, place and environment that gives weight to the themes of the play.
Until July 4 pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com
At some point in Painted People, Refer Lucius to Theater. He can think of something like the Roman theater of Verulamium, now itself a ruin near St Albans in Hertfordshire, but once a thriving place built on the same principles as the mighty Colosseum of Rome. Today it is an atmosphere of a donut shape, surrounded by grassy hills where the seats and walls would have been. As the sun sets under those ancient rocks and grass, the feeling of affinity with theater-goers of centuries ago is palpable.
In his time, it would have offered anything from dancing to armed fighting to wild animal shows. In the nearby Maltings Theater, there’s a summer season with nothing so bloodthirsty, though it’s launching this year’s program with a loud look at Shakespeare’s The comedy of mistakes (himself probably inspired by a Roman comedy by Plautus) who would possibly enjoy the original crowd.
Matthew Parker brings a cheerful, end-of-the-pier quality to his performance of this brilliant saga of misplaced family members, false identities and confused happiness. Ephesus becomes a seaside resort, where runners-up from neighboring rival Syracuse can be killed (a bit broken – not even the most ambitious holiday destinations have resorted to such draconian tactics) and karaoke is one of the main modes of communication.
Here, Shakespeare’s grumpy tale of lost identical twin brothers, both Antipholus (Lewis Jenkins and Gabriel Fogarty-Graveson), and their lost identical twin servants, both named Dromio (Sam Denia and Oliver Lynes), unfold amidst the beach huts, deck chairs and Punch and Judy hutte.
The darker side of the story gets lost in the chaos and the karaoke numbers, and occasionally the comedy feels tense. But it is done with zeal and good humor, and there are pleasant performances by William Donaldson as the drag queen who acts as guide for the baroque premises and by Phoebe Marshall as Antipholus of Ephesus’ long-suffering wife Adriana. It’s a show peppered with running gags and accompanied by a cozy summer mood that’s hard to resist. And despite all the slapstick, it is, fittingly for the time, a story of reconciliation and healing.
Until July 4 maltingstheatre.co.uk