Theatre reviews: Adventures with the Painted People | The Fishwives | Estate

It’s hard to imagine a play more perfectly suited to Pitlochry’s new woodland amphitheatre than David Greig’s Adventures with the Painted People, writes Joyce McMillan
Adventures with the Painted People at Pitlochry Festival Theatre's newly built 80-seat AmphitheatreAdventures with the Painted People at Pitlochry Festival Theatre's newly built 80-seat Amphitheatre
Adventures with the Painted People at Pitlochry Festival Theatre's newly built 80-seat Amphitheatre

It has taken almost 15 months, and a heroic effort of construction from the one Scottish producing theatre with a back garden big enough to meet the challenge; but last weekend, in the magnificent woodlands behind Pitlochry Festival Theatre, a series of small audiences – around 40 people in each – took their seats for the very first live professional theatre performances in Scotland, in a fully seated theatre auditorium, since the doors were closed by the pandemic in March 2020.

The setting is superb, in a small wooden amphitheatre build into the forest hillside, with a distant view of Ben Vrackie as backdrop; and it’s difficult to imagine a play more perfectly attuned to this new space than David Greig’s Adventures With The Painted People (****), set among these hills almost 2000 years ago, when the Romans were seeking to develop one of their great camps at Inchtuthil on the Tay, and to establish their dominance over the local Pictish people.

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First presented as a radio play after the cancellation of last year’s Pitlochry Summer Season, Adventures With The Painted People is a left-field and slightly unexpected romantic comedy about an encounter between Eithne, the leader of a small Caledonian tribe, and a Roman officer called Lucius, a bit of a loner who is seized, on Eithne’s instructions, while walking by the river. After the defeat of the Caledonians at the battle the Romans call Mons Graupius, Eithne is trying to hold her people together alone, with the help of her reputation as a powerful witch. She knows, though, that her defeated people will have to strike a deal with the conquerors; and she therefore wants Lucius to teach her all he can about Roman language and culture, so that she can meet the Roman governor as an equal.

The threat of savage violence therefore hangs over the play at all times; Eithne’s tribe may kill Lucius, or the Romans may descend on the village, slaughtering those who will not accept imperial rule. Yet Greig constantly deflects those dark expectations, in a deft sparring-match of wit and attraction between Eithne and Lucius that revolves around the obvious tension between his Roman ways – all straight lines and rational calculations – and her much more magical belief-systems, deeply rooted in the natural world that surrounds us; on Saturday afternoon, two swallows actually twirled across the stage during the final love scene, as if offering a blessing.

There are stereotypes galore in play here, of both gender and culture; and the light-touch romantic tone can seem anachronistic. In the end, though – given a superb central performance from Kirsty Stuart as Eithne, staunch support from Nicholas Karimi as Lucius, and a beautifully-paced production by Elizabeth Newman – Greig’s play succeeds in exploring and unravelling some difficult and timely questions; about what we mean by progress, about what we lose and gain by becoming part of a larger empire, and about the possibility that the people of the ancient world were finally not unlike ourselves – fond of a laugh, capable of learning, and sometimes inclined to believe that love might be the answer, after all.

One tribe whose presence has remained constant through centuries of Scottish history is that of the people of Leith, celebrated in William Haddow’s popular novel Leithers One Family, and now by the Leith-based community company Citadel Arts, in an audio adaptation of ten chapters from the novel, set from the 14th to the 21st centuries.

The series – released weekly – has now reached Episode 8, in which the Napoleonic wars are at their height, and the fishwives of Leith and Newhaven need all their ingenuity to protect their menfolk from being seized for military service by government press gangs. Each episode is around 13 minutes long, and this one, The Fishwives (***) – written by Lizzie McLean and directed by Mark Kydd – features a briskly entertaining script, a lovely pair of central performances from Alison McFarlane and Nicola Roy, and some outstanding singing of traditional fisher wives’ songs by Sophia Abrahamsen of the Newhaven Choir.

In truth, though, the story of the people of Leith, and of working class communities everywhere, is not always one of cheerful resilience and survival. In the 20th century, many of the people of Leith found themselves rehoused in the big new housing schemes on Edinburgh’s northern edges; and it’s to North Edinburgh Arts Centre, in Muirhouse, that rock musician, artist, and general agitator Jimmy Cauty, brings his latest disturbing urban installation, known as Estate (****).

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A more immersive follow-up to his previous work The Aftermath Dislocation Principle, seen in the Grassmarket in 2016, Estate invites us to enter a container, and walk around four model tower blocks on the verge of demolition, the flats inside wrecked and empty of people, stray fragments of furniture or posters on walls offering shattered glimpses of the lives lived there, and of the society that shaped the coming and going of these huge residential towers.

The experience also includes thick smoke, strobe lighting, wind, and loud tannoy announcements asking us to leave; and as a brief visit to humankind’s endless capacity for imagining utopias and then turning them into dystopias, it’s both a powerful corrective to any sense of complacency about the survival of communities so carelessly uprooted and destroyed, and a brilliantly robust and undefeated response to that history, now playing in a part of Edinburgh that certainly has its own story to tell, on those very themes.

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Adventures With The Painted People is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 4 July. All episodes of Leithers One Family are available at Estate is at North Edinburgh Arts Centre until 26 June, and then at Platform, Glasgow

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