Creative Director: Angus Farquhar
NVA and National Theatre of Scotland
Kilmartin Glen, Argyll
There's nothing like a build-up to an event. With Half Life, the theatrical performance at the end of a day's driving, reading, hillwalking, and meditating, soaked in the clean air of Kilmartin Glen, is only the tip of the iceberg, which is the saving grace of the production, as a convoluted and oblique devised script forms the weak link in an otherwise spectacular event.
Site-specific doesn't even come close to categorising this collaboration between environmental arts group NVA and National Theatre of Scotland, who continue to reinforce their ethic of pushing theatre to the peripheries of Scotland's rural communities as much as its major cities. Set in Kilmartin Glen, Argyll, the production encompasses walks to and around a group of historical landmarks, some of which date from before 3000BC, some of which are natural such as the legendary Corryvreckan whirlpool, the third largest of its kind in the world, and many of which bear associations with death and the afterlife. These are all signposted by a day guide book, given out on check-in at the box office. In the evening, your exertions are rewarded by a seated piece of theatre which takes place in the eerie setting of a forest clearing.
In many ways, the piece's location, in the heart of Kilmartin Glen's archeologically rich Neolithic sites, is alienating in its exclusivity. Transport to and from the site limits the audience to car owners and their friends only. However NVA and NTS have, to their credit, succeeded not only in bringing theatre to a new type of almost boundless space, but coaxing a theatre audience towards a new way of experiencing performance. It is, by all means, the perfect marriage of idea to space, and the glen the only place, quite literally, in which it could be created.
All site-specific theatre must by its nature engage with things which are real as well as staged, but here the idea is developed a step further, as the mind is consistently primed throughout the day by a cross country treasure hunt between prehistoric henges, cairns and carvings dotted throughout the glen. The site contains remnants of past societies which are palpably real yet inevitably imaginary, as you are forced to fill in the blanks which have eroded away between the ruins. In some cases, NVA have made steps towards their own re-imaginings of the sites, through visual and sound installations.
After a while you cannot help but be embroiled in a sense of ritual and spirituality all of which feels as if it is building towards some nugget of wisdom which will unravel the mystery or at least attempt to give narrative to the fragments of history now swimming listlessly round your mind. With the help of the day guide's vignettes from archaeologists, poets, and artists which relate to some of the landmarks, you can begin to forget that you are staring at a pile of ancient stones in a field of sheep and start to reflect on the past encounters the land has witnessed, as well as your own sense of the present. The whole experience is a feast for the imagination, made even more stimulating by the open space environment and the reality of the art on show.
It's this expectancy which drives the piece towards which should by rights be the climax of the event. And in many ways it is. Seeing real human interaction on the land is striking enough, and the visuals of the piece from Phil Supple's truly electrifying lighting design to Simon Costin and James Johnson's set with its beams of wood splaying into the forest behind play with the images and symbols of the Neolithic sites to great effect. At the opening, a bronze glow pulses on the semi-circle of wood like a beating heart. Director Mark Murphy's background in dance and movement emerges in the exquisite choreography of the cast which sees Alexandra Harrison and Joseph Traynor abseiling down red-lit trees, and walking upside down underneath the set, mirroring the movements of the characters above.
If all this doesn't give an inkling of what the play is actually about, there's a good reason, in that the untidy plot has to be painstakingly excavated from a series of obscure snippets of dialogue. Somehow it is eventually conveyed that workaholic archaeologist Jacob Wheeler is becoming increasingly estranged from his long-suffering wife Clare, played with dignity by Christine Entwhisle who does her utmost to find truth and sympathy in the role with the small resources she is given.
Meanwhile their daughter has been somehow sucked into a metaphorical or literal underworld on the site of one of her father's digs. The result is more supernatural than spiritual, with the only true references to the Neolithic past of the day sites, images of which we have been lovingly nurturing in our minds, being fulfilled through Jacob's repetitive scientific ramblings about conduits and cup circles. Some interesting ideas are scratched upon, such as the notion of what happens to matter when it ceases to exist, and in this case, whether the dead can miss the living, but these meaningful lines are never developed and end up flying by like pieces of blink-and-you-miss-them dust.
It's a frustrating end to a beautifully conceived project which can and should lead the way for further exploration into theatre and art of this kind. As a whole the piece combines so many elements - exercise, the outdoors, landscape - whilst raising so many ideas about society, symbolism, and the cyclical nature of rituals and representation. Perhaps it's inevitable that witnessing something so domestic and specific to our time loses some of the magic which has been brewing through the mystery and time-distance of visiting the ancient sites. It would be interesting, therefore, to see what the Neolithic people or even the land itself would have made of it all.
Reviewer: Lucy Ribchester