If there’s one thing that’s becoming clear, about Scottish theatre post-pandemic, it’s that the days when theatre could retreat into its black box, slam the door, and forget about the natural world outside are long gone. Given the insistence of the climate crisis we now face, images of rivers and sea, mountains and forests, pervade the minds of our theatre-makers; and even our retelling of wholly urban stories like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde undergo subtle transformations, when they are performed in powerful outdoor spaces like Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s new woodland amphitheatre.
Hannah Lavery’s new adaptation of Jekyll And Hyde **** is transformational in any case, delivering a solo one-hour retelling of the tale from the point of view of the many women who witness Jekyll’s own transformation and the violent rampages of his alter ego Mr Hyde, and who eventually become his victims. Most are domestic servants, as wise as they are vulnerable; and all are played with terrific knowing force by Alicia Mackenzie of the Pitlochry ensemble.
Amy Liptrott’s production – with fine soundscape by Ben Occhipinti – sometimes fails to differentiate the dozen or so characters clearly enough, causing the odd moment of confusion. Yet as evening shadows lengthen over Pitlochry, and Hyde’s victims gather again in another dimension to watch his final destruction, Mackenzie’s performance achieves a shuddering power; and the great trees around the stage also look on, as if celebrating the final triumph of the forces of life over Jekyll’s deadly obsession, and the hideous violence it causes.
The natural world forms an essential backdrop, meanwhile, to two shows now available online from Scottish theatre companies, both inspired by the life, culture and landscape of Scotland’s islands. Cailleach *** is a haunting 40 minute film co-produced by Mull Theatre and new Scottish-based company Sonder Circus, which seeks to explore the old Scots-Gaelic legend of the Cailleach – the female spirit of winter and old age – through a mixture of voice-over reflection, ground-based movement, and aerial work, mostly set against magnificent natural settings in Mull and New Zealand, where some of the company were locked down at the start of the pandemic.
The integration of the aerial work into the overall texture of the film seems to me slightly awkward at times; the use of a metal frame to support Lauren Jamieson’s aerial presence can be jarring, amid so many towering natural features. Given a strong Scots-language text by Ashley Smith, though, and thoughtful direction by Beth Morton, Cailleach emerges as an ambitious, boundary-pushing project that seeks to give a new 21st century voice to those old powers of earth, sky and water, often imagined as female, with whom we must now reacquaint ourselves, in the face of the challenges to come.
Helen Milne Productions' rousing music theatre show Islander **** was a huge Edinburgh Fringe hit of 2019; and now, Eden Court Theatre and Dundee Rep have joined forces to transform it into an 85-minute film shot through, like Cailleach, with a sense of the need to strike a new balance with nature. Teenager Eilidh is the last person of school age left on the tiny island of Kinnan, where she lives with her grandmother. Eilidh’s mother has left for a job on the mainland; and the hundred remaining islanders are struggling to decide whether to leave the island for good, when Eilidh finds on the beach a wild red-haired girl called Arran, who claims to come from a floating island which is the long-lost other half of Kinnan.
The story of Eilidh and Arran’s friendship, and of the deeper reconciliation it symbolises, is told through a powerful and shapely series of dramatic scenes by writer Stewart Melton, and a sequence of fine songs by Finn Anderson performed with thrilling flexibility and power by the show’s twin stars, Bethany Trennick and Kirsty Findlay. And director Amy Draper’s film – set partly on the empty stage of Dundee Rep, and partly in island landscapes – is a beautiful and eloquent melding of the filmic and the theatrical, as we watch two young performers conjure magic out of an empty space; and then transport us beyond it, to the places already glimpsed through song and imagination.
It’s also worth giving a nod, this week, to Frances Poet’s SoundStage audio play Sophia ***, co-produced by Pitlochry Festival Theatre and the Royal Lyceum, and featuring another womanly tale, in the story of Sophia Jex-Blake, the first woman ever to qualify as a doctor in Scotland. Set in 1918, some six years after Sophia’s death, the play is built around a conversation between the two women who were her long-term life-partners – Dr Margaret Todd, who wrote her biography, and her earlier partner Ursula DuPre.
The story of Jex-Blake’s life is therefore told via flashbacks; and the play sometimes has a slightly schools-radio feel, as Poet strives to pack in the whole story of Jex-Blake’s remarkable life of feminist campaigning and struggle in the world of medicine.
Given a strong central performance from Madeleine Worrall as Sophia, though, it emerges as a valuable and thought-provoking document about the lives lived, just a century ago, by women who strove to achieve their own professional status, and whose private lives involved the love of other women; as well as some poignant thoughts about the tension between love and work – or between striving and simply being – that haunts the lives of all campaigning spirits, and perhaps can never fully be resolved.
Jekyll And Hyde is at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, until 8 September; Cailleach is available from Mull Theatre online at comar.co.uk, 1-11 September; Islander is now available from Dundee Rep Studios on demand, at dundeerep.co.uk; Sophia, run completed.
A message from the Editor
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription at https://www.scotsman.com/subscriptions