Originally commissioned as part of Pitlochry Festival Theatre’s Shades of Tay project, Adventures with the Painted People – David Greig’s first original play since 2013 – was first performed as a radio series on BBC Radio 3. Now, finally able to bring the production to the stage, director Elizabeth Newman maximises the wonder of Pitlochry’s natural surroundings to tell the story of a charming encounter between two worlds.
Adventures with the Painted People tells the story of a blossoming kinship between an unlikely pair. Kirsty Stuart plays Eithne, the Witch of Kenmore (who is really from Fife), while Nicholas Karimi is Lucius, a Roman officer who has been captured by Eithne’s village folk. With the threat of the Roman empire looming over the Picts, Eithne asks her prisoner to teach her how to be a Roman, with the hope of being able to reconcile with the Roman governor who plans to further invade Caledonia. In turn, Lucius learns about the world of the Salmon People, including their understanding of dreams, history, and time.
It’s hard to believe that Greig wrote this play unaware that Pitlochry’s newly built amphitheatre would be its stage. The outdoor theatre is the perfect setting for this journey back in time; the surrounding forest fully immerses the audience, with the river Tay and birdsong echoing through the trees. While we were treated to glorious sunshine today, even on a rainy day this idyllic backdrop will leave you captivated.
Equally impressive is the stage itself, dressed to represent the inside of the Picts’ House of the Dead (though concealing a wonderful treasure that appears towards the end). Equally impressive is the use of pyrotechnics that helps to demonstrate Eithne’s power. Yet, the costume design – which feels like an afterthought – does the staging and performers a disservice. Stuart’s wearing of jeans and a tank top underneath her shift is distracting and weakens what is otherwise a carefully crafted visual production. Likewise, the temporary tattoos adorned by Stuart – one of the few references to the titular “painted people” – are underwhelming. The music also feels out of place at times, with the loud piano music played between scenes making the narrative border on twee.
Despite these inconsistencies within the production design, Adventures with the Painted People is an enchanting production, largely thanks to the excellent performances from Stuart and Karimi. Karimi’s Lucius is a kind soul, missing home and wondering whether anyone has noticed he has gone missing. Stuart’s Eithne, meanwhile, is a spirited and fiercely independent woman who is determined to protect her people. Though Lucius is Eithne’s prisoner, there is very little tension between the pair – a wise choice. Instead, their mutual respect for one another allows for a light-hearted tone rather than a more hostile one. This, along with the humour generously sprinkled throughout the script – often through throwaway comments – leads to an overwhelmingly endearing tale.
Despite the challenges they – and so many other theatres – have faced over the past 15 months, the Pitlochry Festival Theatre has achieved something truly magical here. Adventures with the Painted People is not just a story about Scotland’s past; it’s a hopeful promise for the future of Scottish theatre as well.