There has always been something implausible about the Pitlochry Festival Theatre, a sensation not dulled by familiarity. Sited in a small town in the Highlands, it was the realisation of a determined dream in the post-war years, perhaps the last time when grand visions for society and the arts could be realised. The theatre originated in a garage, graduated to a marquee before finding its final home in a pretty little theatre which its architects ensured would snuggle as respectfully into the environment as did the great Greek theatres of antiquity.
Its survival was not always guaranteed, but after much travail it is now an integral part of Scotland’s theatrical life, now showing originality and boldness in its programming and bringing to the stage works not seen elsewhere in Scotland. As current Chief Executive and Artistic Director, James Durnin underlines, uncomplainingly, the theatre receives only some 24% of its annual income from public subsidies, and relies for the rest on box office receipts and takings from its restaurant and shops. It’s very existence is an advertisement for the beneficial impact of arts funding. Pitlochry owes its prosperity and the prominence which makes it stand out as against, say, Callander or Crieff, to the theatre.
One of the curious things about the traditional critical response to productions in Pitlochry is that reviewers felt inclined to review the audience rather than the play. It was routinely noted that the audience was middle-class and middle aged, and only after a few banal sniggers at these villains could the critic settle to comment on the work being staged. This phenomenon, unsurprisingly, irritated Durnin who points out that the socio-financial profile of their audience is scarcely different from that of people who occupy the stalls in the Lyceum or the Citizens’.
Its current programme demonstrates critical insight and a willingness to venture down paths less trodden. It gives a second outing to some Scottish plays which had vanished from view after a brief run in the Tron or the Traverse, produces works which had been seen only in metropolitan theatres, takes a chance with a difficult musical and then shows a touch of originality by reviving plays from the forgotten years of British theatre history, approximately from the Edwardian years until the 1950s. In the current programme, these slots are taken respectively by David Greig’s Pyrenees, Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, and Somerset Maugham’s Home and Beauty. Works from the dark age represented by Maugham can be conveniently filed as ‘bourgeois,’ that is, preceding John Osborne’s revolution, and therefore patronised by those whose minds are happily unencumbered by knowledge of the actual scripts and unaware of any satiric, questioning tone to them.
The ensemble company established each season makes huge demands of the actors, but gives audiences the opportunity to see in practice the nature, the range and the demands of the craft of acting. To view the same actors performing widely differing roles in a fixed repertoire is to be given an insight into theatre. The festival still employs the swaggering slogan ‘Stay Six Days, See Six Plays’. I stayed two days, and managed to see three plays, none of which I had seen before. This gave me the chance to see Jacqueline Dutoit bring both appropriate severity of judgment on present conduct and wistfulness for past laxity to the part of the ageing Mrs Armfeldt in A Little Night Music, then convert in Home and Beauty into the outwardly prim and proper Miss Morency who lives by providing would-be divorcees with the circumstances that will provide for the courts the acceptable but phoney proof of adulterous liaison, and finally, and magnificently, in The Lady in the Van, the eccentric or disturbed Miss Shepherd who lives in a motor vehicle parked outside the house of Alan Bennett. She is not alone in this company in displaying high-quality versatility, but by herself she provides a master class in performance skills. Some other performers also double as musicians, and it is in itself deeply satisfying for a theatre-goer in these straitened times to submit to the sensual appeal of a large cast on stage.
Equally impressive is the display of other skills that make theatre. It would be easy for the company to plead that the need for rapid assembly and dismantling of sets would make a rough and ready approach acceptable, but the refusal to compromise on production values is striking. The stage designs are visually ravishing and clearly thought out. Charles Cusick-Smith created for the first Act of A Little Night Music an imaginative set of panels decorated with twirls and whorls which suggested in some imprecise way musical notations, but the panels could be slid open at the edges during the action to allow characters to peep out and comment. They also stretched back one behind the other to give the impression of varying dimensions and levels. Adrian Rees would have been gratified by the spontaneous applause when the curtain was pulled back for each of the three Acts of the Maugham play, to reveal first a bedroom of soft white drapes surrounding the settee on which the prattling, frivolous bitch Victoria (a splendidly mannered and modulated performance by Isla Carter) lies having her fingers manicured, then a drawing room decorated with fashionable Wyndham Lewis fabrics and ending in Act III with a more stern kitchen to which the two redundant male characters have been relegated. Ken Harrison’s set in the Bennett play has to be more functional, showing an internal scene of a writer’s study and an outside scene where the van which is Miss Shepherd’s residence is parked, but it works ideally, especially in the final apotheosis when, following Miss Shepherd’s demise, the van is raised off the ground to the accompaniment of the Hallelujah chorus.
James Durnin suggested that he developed his programme from an initial enthusiasm for a couple of plays, and then saw others cluster around it. In his own view, the quest for identity was the unifying factor this year, although he nodded vigorously when I suggested that sex, its appeal and its repulsion, was another common factor. Perhaps questions of identity and sex are to be found not too far below the surface in all theatre, but the intriguing, revealing feature is the style in which they are treated, and how they impact on the depiction of the emotions which shape them and are shaped by them. Somerset Maugham is scarcely remembered as a playwright, and might even be slipping out of sight as a novelist, but the off-hand, comic satire which permeates Home and Beauty, even if it is no more emphatic than in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, will surprise many. Its tone seemingly caused resentment when the work was first produced in the aftermath of World War I, although it must also have chimed with the mood of post-heroic disenchantment which prevailed in certain quarters.
The heroine is called Victoria and one can wonder at the depths of irony implied by that name. Her first husband, Bill, having been supposedly killed at Ypres, she marries his best friend, Freddie. The marriage is socially and financially convenient and the emotional ties are not binding, but the domestic harmony, such as it is, is disrupted when it transpires that Bill is alive and well and on the way home. In the hands of another writer, this situation could lead to explosions of individual and social trauma, but Maugham’s play is shot through with a cynicism which is not cosmic but which is a distancing factor, meaning that emotions are not presented red and raw. They are rather served up medium rare. Maybe the fact that Maugham was gay was another, although very subterranean, element in the writing, but when the two friends discover they are both married to the same woman, and even both have children by her, they are both eager to use the occasion to escape from the nuisance of matrimony and female demands.
As it happens the female in question is now more interested in a third party, the bounder Leicester Paton (Allan J Mirren, playing the part with dash and smirking slyness) who had profiteered from the war. The dilemma is how to engineer a double divorce, which is where the services of the afore-mentioned Miss Morency are invaluable. The law was never more of an ass than Maugham makes it here, and the play, sure-handedly directed by Richard Barton, offers the delight of walking into a supposedly period museum, but discovering that the exhibits can walk, and even talk a recognisable language. The New Woman has yet to make her entrance in society. Victoria is a precursor of Evelyn Waugh’s Bright Young Things, but she forges her own way, while the two husbands (Simon Pontin and Reece Richardson) form an ever so slightly odd couple, seemingly more at ease in each other’s company.
There is the same sense of emotions gingerly handled in A Little Night Music. The play, an adaptation of the Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night, was first produced on Broadway in 1973. It is wonderfully entertaining, always engrossing, and is kept bowling along in Durnin’s sparkling production. Who cares if the book bears the relation to the original that Kiss Me Kate does to Taming of a Shrew? There are references to old love affairs, but they are not carried as scars on the psyche. This is the world of The Tin Soldier rather than of La Traviata, but how beguiling it is. Fredrik (Dougal Lee) has married a young wife, but her vivacity robs him of his manhood, and he still longs for Desirée (played beautifully by Basienka Blake), who is willing to allow him to show that he is still the man he once was, but the best laid plans gang badly agley when they are disturbed by her current beau, a military Count who is also married. The Count, a figure of fun, played effectively as a loud-mouthed braggart by Alan J Mirren, is the representative figure who establishes the tone of this musical. His jealousy is aimed at his mistress, not his wife. The dinner table fracas in the country house of Madame Armfeldt is pitched perfectly, and one of the attractions of the piece is that it affords glimpses of other works, such as Miss Julie. The action unfolds in Sweden, after all. Emotions seem to be echoes on the wind, but whimsy has its charms.
The best of writers establish their own tone, move in a world of their own making, devise characters who become recognisably theirs and theirs alone, so it would have been unremarkable if The Lady in the Van had been a fantasy created by Alan Bennett, but the amazing thing is that the events described actually happened. Miss Shepherd parked her van in his garden and imposed herself on his life and his imagination. Why did she choose him and not, say, David Hare or Caryl Churchill, and how would they have responded if she had? She believed she met the Virgin Mary in the main street in Camden Town, and that she had once been a nun and a gifted musician whose talents had been stifled by an insensitive Mother Superior. Which of these beliefs was true and which evidence of a mind unhinged? To transfer the deeply moving story on stage, Bennett had the brilliant idea of making himself a character and dividing himself into two – the writer with ice in his veins who observes and collects material for future use, and the citizen whose instincts are humane and kindly. The two men (bravura performances by Mark Elstob and Ronnie Simon) debate with each other and with Miss Shepherd in the accents of Bradford which make the ideal vehicle for the writer’s mystified view of human conduct. Other interested parties include a comically earnest social worker with a command of platitudes, a fashionably leftish couple as well as assorted thugs and people who might be the ‘next of kin’ she so fears, or they might not. A compassionate depiction of an odd old lady is combined with a wry self-questioning autobiographical portrait to make highly moving theatre. There is a series of possible endings, before the final ironic raising up of the van as though it were a sacred vehicle.
Three splendid productions, each excellently staged, with the bonus of the spectacle between shows, presumably timed and choreographed, of salmon leaping upstream in the nearby river Tummel, an alliance of art and nature which will send all but the most cynical back to the city in a mood of pleasing mellowness.