Adventures with the Painted People: David Greig on adapting his new play about the Picts for radio

Out of the wreckage of Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s 2020 season comes a radio version of David Greig’s play, Adventures With The Painted People, which imagines a meeting between a Roman officer and a Pictish leader

David Greig

For decades, the leading Scottish playwright David Greig – currently artistic director of the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh – has been balancing the tensions of a fiercely busy life as writer, director, producer, family man and leading spokesman for the Scottish arts community, by pounding the hill trails of Scotland. He runs most weekends, not only in Fife where he lives, but also across the Highlands, central Scotland and the Borders; and his love for the hills, and the peace to be found there, is palpable.

There is more to Scotland’s upland landscapes, though, than even those who love them best often realise; and it wasn’t until a few years ago, when they were working together on her show Wind Resistance, that the Scottish singer and songwriter Karine Polwart mentioned to Greig that there was an old hill fort – possibly Pictish in origin – near her former home south of Edinburgh. Within a few days, on Addinston Hill, Greig found himself going off the beaten track, across fields and fences, to reach this ancient hilltop structure, apparently almost unvisited; and what he found, he says, was remarkable in two ways.

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First, it was a very large, impressive earthwork, more like a huge piece of land art by Charles Jencks than anything else Greig could call to mind; and secondly, although the hill is not particularly high, it had the most astonishing lines of sight, for many miles around. And from that moment, Greig began to develop a passion for the history of Iron Age Scotland which took him to hill forts across the country, most of them thought to have been built between 1000 BCE and 500 AD.

“I suppose when you’re a playwright, and you develop a passionate interest like that, you begin to recognise the symptoms of something that might eventually become a play,” says Greig. “I know it’s unhistoric to think, ‘how must it have felt,’ and to try to imagine their lives through a 21st century lens; but as a writer, part of you just can’t help it. So all of this was swirling around in my mind, like a primal swamp; and then the spark came when Elizabeth Newman at Pitlochry Festival Theatre launched her Shades Of Tay project, and asked me if I would like to write something for it, about past or present of the River Tay.”

At first, Greig though that he would probably write a short piece of 15 or 20 minutes, as most writers involved in Shades of Tay are doing. The project quickly took on a life of its own, though; and by late last year, Newman had decided to schedule Greig’s play, now titled Adventures With The Painted People, as a full-length production, and part of Pitlochry’s 2020 summer season. And although, along with the rest of the season, the production was cancelled because of the Covid-19 crisis, it was rapidly scooped up by the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine programme, and by independent radio producers Naked Productions, for presentation next month on Radio 3. Newman is rehearsing and directing the show online; and the two leading roles around which the play revolves, a Roman officer called Lucius and a Caledonian leader called Eithne, will be played by Olivier Huband – who appeared at Pitlochry just before lockdown in Barefoot In The Park – and Kirsty Stuart, who played the Duchess of Malfi last year at the Lyceum and the Tramway, and was an unforgettable Grace in Newman’s autumn Pitlochry production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer.

“I think the play was always a two-hander in my mind,” says Greig, “although there is a community around Eithne in the story, making many demands on her, and we hope to capture that both in the radio version, and on stage. It’s inspired partly by the Roman fort at Inchtuthil, on the Tay near Dunkeld, which was built as a major fort of occupation and then abandoned after just a few years when the Romans withdrew from Caledonia; and the play is about an encounter between a Roman officer – a servant of the Empire called Lucius, born in north Africa, educated in Rome, posted to Scotland – and a local leader called Eithne, who has Lucius kidnapped because she needs to know more about these people who have come to her country as an occupying force.”

For fans of Greig’s work, this central relationship is bound to carry echoes of his 2010 play for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Dunsinane, which involves a central argument – also played out in a fortress near the Tay in Perthshire – between Macbeth’s Gaelic-speaking Queen, Gruoch, who has survived the carnage at the end of Shakespeare’s play, and the English General Siward, commander of the occupying force. For Greig, though, the conversation between Lucius and Eithne, taking place almost 1,000 years earlier in historic terms, has resonances that belong very much to the immediate present.

“When I was writing it, it sometimes felt like a Brexit play – Lucius talking about the benefits of belonging to a huge, Europe-wide structure, Eithne more sceptical. But now, it seems more like an argument between something very like our civilisation – organised, domineering, fond of building big structures and leaving huge marks on the landscape, whatever the cost – and those aboriginal cultures that have a more sustainable relationship with the land, and often leave very little trace. There’s something about the tension between the human impulse to be outward and dynamic and adventurous, to travel the world and leave a mark on it, and the equal impulse to belong to a place, to put down deep roots, to make a sustainable life somewhere; and we’re all caught in that tension at the moment, when so many aspects of our civilisation have come to such a sudden halt.”

And Newman – as she adjusts her headphones for another Zoom rehearsal – also senses intense contemporary resonances in the play. “For me, it’s a play about how we live together, how we find the things we have in common despite our differences – and how we do that without ignoring the impact of imperialism, and other inequalities. It’s shorter than the stage play would have been, of course. But for now, working on a creative project like this is a huge pleasure and privilege, at a time when our theatre life is at such a standstill; and we hope it will whet people’s appetites for the full-length stage version at Pitlochry in 2021.”

Adventures With The Painted People will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 7 June, and will be part of the Pitlochry Festival Theatre summer season in 2021,