Last week’s return to live performance at Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s new outdoor mini-auditorium was a predictably poignant experience, as West End singers Lauren Samuels and Daniel Boys presented a simple but wonderfully affecting series of songs from musicals including Les Misérables, Grease and Mamma Mia!
As the finally-arrived first sun of the summer shone down upon the audience, and with theatres and venues across the country looking at ways of getting back onstage while paying attention to loosened Covid restrictions, PFT’s situation has given it the perfect opportunity to try something different.
Taking advantage of the grass slope outside, which rolls down to the River Tummel and enjoys a distant view of Ben Vrackie, their newly-constructed bandstand stage offers protection from the elements for the performers, while a socially-distanced audience of 50 arrange themselves on camp chairs and picnic blankets before it.
The West End show is the first of many events planned between now and September. Audiences can also look forward to full theatrical adaptations of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows by Mark Powel,l and Robert Louis Stephenson’s Jekyll and Hyde by Hannah Lavery, as well as A Night by the River Tay, a package of new short pieces taken from last year’s Shades of Tay project.
There will also be evenings devoted to Agatha Christie, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekov, Gaelic song and stories, and collections of classical music and opera.
Alice in Wonderland World is an app-based walking adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s famous novel, and Jo Clifford and Lesley Orr’s Requiem will be held in September, a promenade performance aimed at mourning and celebrating the lives of those lost.
“It’s extraordinarily beautiful,” says actor Kirsty Stuart of the amphitheatre – she will be appearing in Adventures with the Painted People, the first theatre production of Pitlochry’s summer season.
“The gardens are in full bloom right now, so there are rhododendrons and poppies. It’s an absolutely great location, with this view round the back of it, through the trees and out to Ben Vrackie.”
Stuart, who moved to Perthshire from the Central Belt three years ago, will be well-known to any PFT regular who saw the company’s excellent version of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer in 2019.
She was meant to have been part of the theatre’s cancelled 2020 summer season, which was to have included a full-stage version of Painted People.
Instead, she had to adapt to audio dramas such as PFT and Edinburgh Royal Lyceum’s Sound Stage season – and BBC Radio 3’s replacement audio version of Painted People, which she describes as “a joyous fortnight of getting on Zoom every day and feeling like we were creating something special, a proper highlight for me last year.”
Stuart will be joined in David Greig’s play by Nicholas Karimi, playing the Roman soldier Lucius to her Pictish witch and village wise woman Eithne, whose paths are thrown together in 85AD when the latter’s people capture Lucius – both thoughtful spirits, they largely try to understand, rather than outwit, one another.
Karimi – who is from Edinburgh, but who’s now based in London, where he’s played in War Horse in the West End and Macbeth at the National Theatre – was meant to be in the original stage version of Painted People, but Covid scheduling upheaval meant he couldn’t join Stuart in the radio adaptation.
“I can’t wait, but I don’t know how I’ll feel,” he says. “It will be all positive, but I don’t know if I’ll be overwhelmed by it. I’m sure I won’t, because we’ve got a couple of dress rehearsals with an audience from the theatre, but to be in front of a live audience and see the whites of people’s eyes… it’ll be odd to hear people, and feel that energy. But I can’t wait, don’t get me wrong. I’ve missed it.”
The venue’s artistic director Elizabeth Newman is the person who has coordinated the outdoor theatre plan. She describes watching a first performance of Kenneth Steven’s long-form poem Riversong at the town’s Holy Trinity Scottish Episcopal Church a couple of weeks ago:
“Knowing that at two o’clock there was going to be this buzz of people, that at five past two someone was going to start to sing, and that all of a sudden everyone was going to be uplifted. It just feels…”
“I found myself watching it with 30 people all spread out, and I just thought, thank God we’re all here. We’re live, we’re in person, people are laughing at the same moment, they’re clapping at the same moment, the actor is connecting through the writer with the audience.”
Newman is speaking to us on the day PFT’s West End show is making its debut.
“This morning I was down at the (PFT) site and watching everybody setting up for an audience,” she says.
“Knowing that at two o’clock there was going to be this buzz of people, that at five past two someone was going to start to sing, and that all of a sudden everyone was going to be uplifted. It just feels…” Her voice tails off, not quite able to put the feeling into words.
“What was hard was that the pandemic was such a terrible thing to happen, and at this exact moment, the theatre was less able to help,” says Newman.
“In time of war, people used to come together and sing. In the blackouts they used to sing underground together – bundled together under blankets, they used to sing. Yet in the very moment where we needed connection, to try and feel less worried and less scared, that was the thing we couldn’t do.
“So now as a theatre, finally we can offer that space again. We can bring people together, we can inspire them, we can help them come up with new ideas about their own lives and the world. It feels like we’re returning to our function in people’s lives – and we’ve endeavoured to keep that going online, we’ve done all sorts of different things to try and keep that connection, but in the end we are a live performance form.”
A traditional amphitheatre with close audience contact
Beyond her clear excitement at the thought of some form of getting back to business, Newman explains the practical dimensions of the space which has been constructed while planned renovation work is going on elsewhere onsite.
“It’s made out of dry-stone walling that you can’t entirely see because of the seating system, but it holds up the environment itself,” she says. “The rest is all wood, to be in keeping with our environment.
“It’s a traditional amphitheatre in the sense that it’s about the audience having exceptional contact with the actors, when you’re sat there you feel incredibly connected to what’s happening onstage, but also to nature.
“Traditionally the area seats just over a hundred, but in social distancing times it will be fifty. The pandemic has been fifteen months without going to live theatre, though – even if we didn’t have our amazing eleven acres, we were joking the other day, I would have found a space outdoors. I would have been like, where’s the field?”
No field is required – only the garden of one of Scotland’s most unique theatrical settings, which Painted People will bring to life from this weekend.
“It’s about their relationship and how equal it is,” says Karimi of Lucius and Eithne. “It’s about how two people who don’t know each other, who are from completely different cultures, can find commonality, that even ground, and teach each other.
A beautifully written play
“David’s writing is beautiful. There’s a thing I find with good writing, whether it’s Shakespeare or Arthur Miller – it’s that when you get a script, you very rarely write anything on it when the writing and the stage directions are that good. It’s like this with David’s script, it didn’t need notes because the writing gives me everything, and I hope the audience will get that from the performance.”
“It doesn’t feel like a historical play either, like a re-enactment or anything,” says Stuart, after enthusing about the chance to perform a piece amid the very landscape in which it’s set.
“David has written two humans, and they come together and they meet and they clash, and they learn from each other on their journey, and are completely changed at the end of it. So that’s universal, right? It’s a Pict and a Roman, but it’s what we’ve been doing for millennia.”
- Adventures with the Painted People is on Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s outdoor stage until July 4. See www.pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com for more.