Sylvian Productions’ two-hander Woman Walking, a Nan Shepherd tribute piece, is touring communities throughout the country. Playwright Sylvia Dow and Director Becky Hope-Palmer have imagined the extraordinary author of The Living Mountain in conversation with a modern hill walker. Nan (Fletcher Mathers), after emerging from a gauze and initially shrouded in mist, engages Cath (Pauline Lockhart) in a fragmentary conversation. At first, neither wants company (“Company gets in the way, demands things,” says Nan). They chat and chafe. Nan’s a legend, an icon; Cath has problems, having given up a career and an independent life to care for her mother.
So they seem an odd couple, the juxtaposition puzzling. We see them thaw, as the alchemy of the landscape and the natural world with its myriad moods changes them. The pair find occasional moments of shared understanding; looking at Nan’s face on the £5 note, appreciating Michaelmas Daisies – nice, but hardly a meaningful reconciliation or moment of epiphany. Cathartic it’s not. The problem here is that the ‘narrative’ of the play – such as it is – promotes the idea of the mountain as somehow healing. We are to believe in the power of the mountain, absolving whatever human troubles and woes we bring to its rocky faces.
And it’s here where Woman Walking doesn’t quite convince its audience. There’s simply not enough magic – or even intensity – for even the tiniest of woes to somehow melt into nothingness. If ‘the journey itself’ becomes the goal, rather than any specific summits, then these chatty revelations about grief, guilt, and sacrifice should have greater dramatic impact, shouldn’t they? Before we know where we are, the odd couple have become pals and are ceilidh dancing.
The dialogue proceeds in fits and starts, without ever becoming coruscating, witty, or penetrating. This is a shame, as the full Eden Court audience will have largely come to the performance on the back of Nan Shepherd’s magnificent, discerning prose. The gorgeous eulogies of The Living Mountain – the wind-kissed beauties of the hill, its rain, sun, snow, and flora – should form the imaginative heart of the play.
Her gift to us is descriptions like this one: “…the world of light, of colour, of shape, of shadow: of mathematical precision in the snowflake, the ice formation, the quartz crystal, the patterns of stamen and petal: of rhythm in the fluid curve and plunging line of the mountain faces…” The odd mention of the hills offering sanctuary, peace, ‘feeling alive’ – no matter how fey the delivery – don’t really cut it.
But for all the ordinariness of the dialogue, Woman Walking is a pleasant experience, performed with skill and aplomb. And this is technically proficient theatre, too. The light, the mist, and the eerie and magical sound design draw us into the simple but effective set of slopes and plateaux. Collectively, Laura Hawkins’ lighting design, Philip Pinsky’s sound design, and Karen Tennent’s set create the conditions for moving drama. And the source material couldn’t be stronger. But discerning the magic here is as difficult as glimpsing a Brocken Spectre: apparently wonderful and enlightening, but damned elusive.