Roman and Pictish. Witchcraft and Engineering. Civilisation and Savagery. David Greig’s Adventures with the Painted People is a jigsaw of opposites and the perfect escapist antidote to a modern world grappling with pandemic and division. Originally written as a play for the stage, this piece has translated phenomenally to radio as part of the BBC’s Culture In Quarantine series.
Eithne, who describes herself as the Witch of Kenmore, has had a Roman officer kidnapped in the hopes that he might teach her to be more Roman, so that she might parlay with the Governor on behalf of her people. Though the wise, tough Eithne is powerful, we quickly learn that Lucius, the captured soldier, is more than a match for her wit. His masculine arena of straight lines and rules is matched only by her feminine domain of softness and flexibility.
Kirsty Stuart’s voice as Eithne is beautifully timeless, warm, and musical, which contrasts wonderfully with the depth and authority of Olivier Huband’s Lucius. The vocal performances are one of many deliberate comparisons made in this well-written and imaginative piece. The order and regimentation of the Roman Empire is partnered with the wildness and freedom of Eithne’s Caledonian world; a world full of sweeping valleys, uneven footfalls and storytelling around the fire. This world is created in Greig’s vivid descriptions and simple, effective sound design by Benjamin Occhipinti and Eloise Whitmore. The corks popping from potion bottles, unsheathing of daggers and crackling of the fire augment the landscape of cold lochs, dark huts and mossy hills we envision in the theatre of our minds. The simple celtic music between scenes is delicate and unobtrusive and shows the passage of time well.
Given that this is a cosy, amicable and, at times, intimate performance, it astounds me that this play was produced by actors and creatives in isolation. The chemistry and interplay between the two lead characters is palpable and is the real genius of this piece. The audience cannot take a side in their opposing beliefs and root for their relationship throughout; this can only be down to the talent of the actors and excellent direction from Pitlochry’s Artistic Director Elizabeth Newman.
There is a practicality and prudence about the character of Lucius which grounds the piece, while the ethereality and dreaminess of Eithne take the audience out of themselves. This play is both historical and familiar, and reminds me of Brian Friel’s Translations. Another play about relationships blossoming between two very disparate people despite prejudice, ethics and language. There is poetry in the script and humour in the performances, magic and dreams and fact run through each scene, as ever present as the ghosts Eithne sees in her House Of Death.
Despite the historical setting and a text peppered with dead languages, I cannot think of a piece which can tell us more about the human condition in troubled times. All five stars are fully deserved and I’d encourage anyone who needs a break from the chaos that 2020 can be, to step back through the Fairy Stones to Caledonia to meet a witch and a Roman who fell in love.
Adventures with the Painted Theatre is available to stream on BBC Radio 3 until 6th July 2020. For more information and to stream go to the BBC Sounds website.
Adventures with the Painted People will have its stage premiere at Pitlochry Festival Theatre from July 22 – 1 October 2021. Go to the Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s website for more info