Theatre review: Heritage, Pitlochry Festival Theatre

It is the great tragedy of our age that Nicola McCartney’s magnificent family drama Heritage, first seen at the Traverse Theatre in 1998, now seems to speak to the personal and political crises of our time even more urgently than it did two decades ago.

David Rankine and Fiona Wood in Heritage at Pitlochry Festival Theatre
David Rankine and Fiona Wood in Heritage at Pitlochry Festival Theatre
David Rankine and Fiona Wood in Heritage at Pitlochry Festival Theatre

Heritage, Pitlochry Festival Theatre *****

Set on the Great Plains of Saskatchewan between 1914 and 1920, Heritage both records a vital chapter in the experience of so many families from these islands – the moment when they decided to reach for a new life in North America – and the tragedy familiar to many migrant families, who find that in trying to honour the culture they came from, they also risk perpetuating old hurts and divisions. It is thrilling to see the play revived with such style and passion in Richard Baron’s eloquent production, on a big Pitlochry stage deftly slanted by designer Ken Harrison to make room for river and fields, house and barn, town and prairie.

Heritage therefore begins in hope, with the Protestant McCrea family from Northern Ireland beginning to make a go of things on their small Saskatchewan farm. Their neighbours the Donaghues – established in North America since the Irish famine of the 1840s – are Roman Catholics; but at first it seems not to matter much, as young Sarah McCrea becomes firm friends with Michael Donaghue, the boy she first meets by the river that divides their two properties.

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The whole arc of McCartney’s tragic drama, though, is about how that brief New World idyll is broken, for Sarah and Michael, by the sheer divisive pressure of world events. As the First World War looms, young boys are pressed into war service on the side of the British Empire; meanwhile the rise of nationalism in Ireland also demands that Irish North Americans take sides, either for their old nation’s independence or against it.

All of this is brilliantly understood and communicated by Baron’s terrific six-strong cast, led by Fiona Wood and David Rankine as the young lovers – she all fierce intelligence and radiant passion, he desperately vulnerable to his competing loyalties.

There are also outstanding performances from Ali Watt and Marc Small as the two fathers, and from Claire Dargo and Deirdre Davis as Sarah’s mother and Michael’s formidable grandmother. Together this fine Pitlochry ensemble create an evening of utterly gripping and moving theatre, that perhaps lacks the familiar box office allure of some other Pitlochry shows this summer, but arguably outdoes them all, both in sheer significance for the moment we live in and in sustained dramatic power. - Joyce McMillan

In repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 26 September