The audio play is emerging as a compelling alternative to streamed stage productions during lockdown. Alan Ayckbourn has written one, Stephen Fry has starred in another. This odd romance between a Roman officer and a Pictish woman in first-century Scotland was originally commissioned by Pitlochry Festival theatre and written for the stage by David Greig. Following the closure of theatres across Britain, Greig re-imagined it as a radio play for BBC Radio 3 together with the theatre’s artistic director, Elizabeth Newman, who directs this audio version.
Last autumn, Greig’s adaptation of Joe Simpson’s mountaineering misadventure, Touching the Void, was staged in the West End. This is his first original play for seven years and has none of the adrenaline-fuelled drama and narrative complexity of that play.
It is quiet, meandering and far from action-packed. Set on the banks of River Tay in 86AD as the occupying Roman forces are on the cusp of the withdrawal, it features Kirsty Stuart as Eithne, a Pict who calls herself a witch, and Olivier Huband as Lucius, a Roman officer who has been captured by the Picts and is tied to a post with a sword at his neck when we meet him. Eithne offers him a deal: she wants to meet the Roman governor and broker peace for her people – so if he teaches her to read Latin, she will save his life.
The couple meet, talk and bond. There is not a huge amount of incident beyond this but the play never feels inert and is perfect for radio in its language, which is rich in poetry without seeming mannered or dense. Its themes of colonisation, identity and hidden history subtly chime with contemporary issues around Brexit Britain. There is thoughtful discussion on heritage, language, culture and belief systems – Roman logic versus the Pictish value of dreams and magic – and oral versus written tradition.
These are dealt with nimbly and the tone is playful for the most part, though there are sudden sparks of seriousness and poignancy, notably when the couple talk about the children they have lost and in Eithne’s vivid summoning of dreams.
The overall effect is that of an afternoon drama on Radio 4 spliced with a Richard Curtis-style romance. Hubard’s Lucius is a winning character – an aspiring poet who has a distinctly English awkwardness. He bumbles and stutters as Stuart’s Eithne unwittingly bewitches him with her strong-willed, sexually liberated otherworldliness.
The actors conjure a natural chemistry though there is perhaps too much amicability from the start and not enough dramatic tension in the plot. But their humour and warmth make up for it and the romance is gradually cranked up until we are gunning for a happy ending.
The radio play is available on iPlayer. The stage play will premiere in Pitlochry from July to October 2021.