Adventures With The Painted People

David Greig
Pitlochry Festival Theatre, BBC Arts, Naked Productions in association with The Royal Lyceum Edinburgh
BBC Radio 3
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It was only January when I was speaking to Elizabeth Newman for the BTG podcast about her adventurous upcoming rep season for Pitlochry Festival Theatre that included a new commission from David Greig of a play “about what happens when a Roman man meets a Pictish woman,” which would be “not so much a road movie is a river movie for the stage."

Of course, the production never got to the stage as the theatres shut before the season could open, but Elizabeth has never been one to sit around waiting for things to happen, so it was turned into an audio play and was broadcast in the most prestigious drama slot on the radio dial: Sunday evening on BBC Radio 3.

The play opens with a masterly 'pull back and reveal' as every line slightly changes your perspective on the two characters in the play, but it turns out (this is in all the publicity so can't be a spoiler) that Lucius (Olivier Huband) is a Roman official who writes bad poetry in secret who has been captured by the native Pictish tribe as the Romans apparently are preparing to expand their empire into Scotland (or 'Caledonia Province') and he is now in the charge of Eithne (Kirsty Stuart), who describes herself as a 'witch' and the place where Lucius is being held in chains as 'the House of the Dead'.

While the Pictish people generally are portrayed, through Eithne, as intolerant of strangers or anything new and keen on human sacrifice, Eithne wants to be in a position to speak to her Roman neighbours as an equal, not as a colonised person or a slave, and so persuades Lucius to teach her Roman ways, from the Latin language and this strange thing called 'writing' to Roman fashion and culture.

There are so many ways that this story could go—is this actually a love story? Will Eithne betray Lucius and give him up for sacrifice? Will the Romans actually take over Scotland and rule it for a thousand years? Will Eithne come to prefer olives, wine and baths to her native culture?—and all of those questions are kept running until near the end, so I won't spoil any of them here.

In the end, it's a play about a clash of cultures, one multicultural and rich with a world of variety in its people, language, food and entertainment but with a desire to ruthlessly rule over and reshape both the people and the landscape everywhere it colonises, the other with a rich culture of its own and a strong attachment to the natural world but inward-looking and intolerant of the unfamiliar or different. It's fashionable to say that this is a debate especially relevant for our time, but really, there has probably never been a time in human history when this question wasn't relevant, and the message by the end is a positive and hopeful one.

It's just an hour and a half of two people talking, but it draws you in and never becomes dull for a moment. There are two great performances (other voices come in very occasionally played by "members of the Pitlochry Festival Theatre ensemble") and director Elizabeth Newman achieves a perfectly measured, unrushed pace throughout. Newman's long-time collaborator Ben Occhipinti has created a sparse soundscape—with sound co-designer Eloise Whitmore—and subtle music way in the background, like an upright piano being played at the other end of a huge hall, which enhances the atmosphere.

This is a lovely piece of intelligent writing, as one would expect from Greig, that is well worth a listen, and if you want to see the fully staged version, you can see its deferred première in Pitlochry between 22 July and 1 October 2021.

Reviewer: David Chadderton