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The Wind in the Willows
Pitlochry Festival Theatre
THE nameless protagonist of Dostoyevsky’s White Nights is the first in a succession of the Russian writer’s lonely anti-heroes enduring urban alienation.
They evolve in his other works into the bitterness of the unnamed narrator in Notes from the Underground and the murderousness of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. But they all begin in innocence.
The curious thing about all these obsessive scribblers is that their characters work so well on stage — in this instance, as a Scotsman.
As we sit through the dusk, the rain and the midges in Pitlochry’s open-air amphitheatre, we’re transfixed by the thin music of this hopeless romance as the tale of the protagonist (Brian Ferguson) unfolds.
He is recruited as a go-between in a suspended relationship and falls in love with the woman and it feels like a last roll of the dice before bitterness freezes the heart.
The adaptation from page to stage is compelling because it summons up an imaginary audience.
We sense that the confessional outpourings would take place even if we weren’t there to bear witness and are always conscious that the whole narrative may be no more than an invention, a fastidious mental process whose only truth is loneliness and whose secret is self-deception.
Yet we watch an inadequate soul writhing on the grill of intolerable existence and we care because he could be any one of us.
Rendering the text into articulate Glaswegian is a master stroke — the faintly archaic language has the ring of naive sincerity which effortlessly oversteps the distance between now and 19th-century Russia.
The opposite ends of Europe and modernism seamlessly fuse together into something universal.
And Ferguson pitches his performance perfectly between vulnerability, hopelessness and a painful, pointless optimism.
He is just one man on a park bench, with no life story. A complete stranger to women, he has no friend or acquaintance to share his joy. He is truly alone. But he will celebrate “the anniversary of his own sensations.”
There is an abstract delicacy to this enterprise that demands an exquisite virtuosity from the actor like a Bach prelude for solo violin. It looks simple, but it must be flawless.
And then he fluffs a line, the spell is broken and we lose sight of the character and catch the actor.
That’s how difficult it is to sustain the intensity of this fragile statement of the human condition on a stage that floats amid the trees.
But the potential of this performance for perfection could make it a landmark of some sort in Scottish theatre. It certainly merits a revival now its very short run has finished.
Halfway through Elizabeth Newman and Ben Occhipinti’s marvellously improvised open-air production of Kenneth Grahame’s reactionary fairytale The Wind in the Willows, two low-flying RAF Tornados ripped through the Tummel valley where Pitlochry is located.
Toad has just renounced the gentle pleasures of slow travel for speed, his new intoxication, and a whole variety of comic chases in cars and trains have ensued.
The thought occurs — was that a begoggled and giggling Toad in the first jet with the coppers in pursuit? This bracingly chaotic production makes that easy to imagine.
With its survival dependent on box-office receipts, Pitlochry Theatre has had no option but to embrace the outside, and open-air performance invites the collaboration of both the immediate world round about and our shared perception of it. It opens an exhilarating perspective.
With a few deft touches we accept that both performers and audience inhabit a peculiar imaginary space on the margins of the human world and nature.
The river flows lazily past. Some rooftops are laconically labelled “Pitlochry” and there people buy drinks and stare at us uncomprehendingly. The distance between us is both subversive and hilarious.
But we also inhabit a political world, refracted inside this all-singing-and-dancing riverbank musical.
Toad, the entitled egomaniac who provides the fun, announces his middle name as De Pfeffel and Colin McCredie’s comic turn both engages the kids and channels Boris Johnson.
And the themes are big, with the evil weasels pointing out with arresting rationality that they have been dispossessed and that property is theft.
Jane McCarry’s strapping Badger cannot plead convincingly for the defence.
Within the tight Edwardian waistcoat of Kenneth Grahame’s fairytale, another act of wish fulfilment is aching to burst through: one that can expose and disassemble entitlement.
Mark Powell’s witty script flirts with the possibility and is sustained by fine ensemble singing, happily daft characterisations, eye-popping costumes and a note-perfect charabanc.
But injustice is not undone by meek apology, class struggle is not resolved with a song, and those jets were a reminder that terrifying state power remains in the hands of a ruthless and reckless elite.
Nevertheless, a memorable experience, and highly recommended.
The Wind in the Willows runs until September 12, box office: pitlochryfestivaltheatre.com.
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