First published in The Times, Monday June 14 2021
Live theatre in Scotland in a time of Covid has come full circle. Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s exuberant production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park was the last show to open north of the border before the national lockdown, its run at the Perthshire theatre coming to an abrupt end after a brace of performances.
Sixteen months on, the theatre is bouncing back with a wide-ranging programme of outdoor shows, promenade performances, monologues and musical recitals. While borne out of necessity, this 70th anniversary season’s alfresco flavour is apposite for a company that began life in a tent by the Tummel.
Certainly the amphitheatre that currently sits perched on the hillside above the main complex feels just right for David Greig’s two-hander, set in nearby Kenmore in mid-80s AD, at the height of the major Roman incursion into Scotland. Written for the stage, Greig reconfigured the piece as audio drama last year. Quiet, lyrical, and featuring an insinuating soundscape from Ben Occhipinti, the play seemed tailor-made for that format, but here the writing is greatly enriched by its interplay with the gorgeous natural setting as well as the live audience.
The spare production, precision-directed and designed by Elizabeth Newman, matches Kirsty Stuart’s Eithne, a Pictish tribal leader and healer, with Lucius (Nicholas Karimi), a Roman soldier captured by the “painted people”. Eithne, wily but pragmatic, wants Lucius to teach her Latin so she can broker peace with the local Roman governor. What starts out as a hastily-struck arrangement takes on a steadily deepening poignancy once the pair break through the language barrier and allow themselves to affirm their shared humanity.
Greig tantalises us with the prospect of a dramatic reckoning, whether between the leads or their respective tribes. This never materialises in any significant way, but what the play lacks in dramatic intensity it more than makes up for in its protagonists’ lively exchange of ideas around nation-building, wanton cultural misunderstanding and the folly of attempting to impose and maintain an imperial colony in an impenetrable landscape. Parallels with recent colonial adventures and cultural insensitivities are clear: yet the ideas are explored here with a lightness of touch, arising from the compelling relationship between the characters.