The Nest, at the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, 20 Apr - 2 May 2004
(toured to Yetholm, Aros Mull, Easdale, Ullapool, Achiltibuie, Lairg, Ardross, Ballachulish, Oban, Aros Skye, Dornie, 4-22 May).
Directed by Lorne Campbell, written by Alan Wilkins.
YOU WAIT ALL DAY, then two come along at once. As with buses, so with plays about the hills. Never one written in TAC's first 13 years, then two arrive inside six months. Last issue (p16) I struggled in the rarefied air of 8000m. This time I am down to earth in a bothy.
The Nest by Alan Wilkins, his first staged play, was performed by the Traverse in Edinburgh and I might as well say right at the off that I loved it. The news that it was to be one hour 40 minutes without an intermission was received with mixed feelings, and not just because of the missed half-time drink. The worry was needless. There were four acts spread over three days in "The Nest", which any TAC-minded type would easily identify as Kinbreack in Glen Kingie. A married couple are there to do their last Munro and, you've guessed it, the symbolism extends to their relationship. The other three residents have more exotic reasons for being there, the most extreme being an old man (Innes, played by Finlay Welsh) bent on burying the bones of a sect leader on the top of Sgurr Mor - coincidentally the aforementioned last Munro of the married couple.
The Nest gets round the problem of suspension of disbelief by setting all the action in the bothy. Sgurr Mor plays a part and so does the weather - the five bothymongers are trapped inside by a Shakespearean storm but at no point is there an attempt to recreate the blasted heath on stage. Despite the bone-burying plot line, the intrigue centres on the married couple, Helen (Candida Benson) and Colin (Matthew Pidgeon). One probably expected to go one's life without encountering a piece of high art that hinged on Munro completion, but such is The Nest. The battleground for the marital woes of the pair turns out to be old Hugh's list, and the chosen weapon is the ticking pen.
Claire Yuille as Jackie is a lost photographer who had been looking to shoot a calendar picture when the storm blew up. Her ignorance thus allows the others to initiate the audience into the kind of fanatical list-making and ticking that is meat and bones to TAC. The final character - Mac, played by Lewis Howden - is doing a Hamish Brown-type uninterrupted Munro round, although one assumes his use of taxis was not in imitation of Hamish. (Nor his occasional "lightweight cigarette", © Dr G W McSharkie.)
Despite the surreal bone-burying, it's the will they / won't they of Colin and Helen that keeps the attention right to the end. It wouldn't work if the audience didn't root for them, but Wilkins skilfully gets us on their side despite their past mendacities. He cheated on her with a woman, so she cheated on him by - I kid you not - bagging something without telling him. Imagine the divorce citation.
Colin, despite being the original cheater, is the softer character. "You're on every page of every logbook," he says to Helen. "You're in every photograph of a summit cairn or a trig point. You're in every memory of the Scottish hills that I've got." Helen: "When I'm walking I know what you mean, things seem clear and simple even. On Monday morning, back at work, that's when everything seems so difficult again."
Wilkins himself has 60 Munros bagged away along with a coast-to-coast walk, so the detail in the text seems unimpeachable. Bothy etiquette and bagging logistics are covered, as is the commercialisation of the hills. Mac the long-distance bagger is lugging a four-kilo rock in his pack because he thinks it will be a good angle if he writes the round up. Jackie the snapper's take on this is: "Round Moldova with a fucking fridge, I hate that. Ordinary stuff with an angle. Write an interesting book about an interesting subject - people will read it."
In act four the weather eases, the bones are buried and Sgurr Mor is ticked for Colin. But of course the denouement is waiting when he gets back to Helen in the bothy - will they go off to do the Corbetts (a metaphor for the marriage surviving)? Sadly there is no mention of Marilyns, which would obviously see them into their dotage. I won't tell you what happens, but suffice to say that by this point the characters have been skilfully developed and played and one feels for them. Colin has had his one moment of indiscretion and appears to have been a puppy dog ever since. Helen has been storing the news of her bagging infidelity until the critical moment to give him some notion of how she felt at his betrayal. As one who ticks a book myself this still doesn't seem like the closest parallel to catching one's inamorata with the milkman. For non-baggers in the audience one has to wonder. Man arrives at best friend's house with suitcase, copy of FHM and golf clubs: "I've left her - she did Bidein a'Choire Sheasgaich a year ago and didn't tell me". But you have to applaud Wilkins for trying it on, and some of the baggers in the pages of this magazine do occasionally amaze me.
I have no idea what the Guardian meant when it said "In its own naturalistic way, The Nest stares into the same existential abyss as Waiting for Godot." I am more interested in the abyss that is the Witch's Step. But Wilkins has created a very fine piece of entertainment with humour, some of the richness of bagging/walking culture, and a set of engaging characters. 8000m is fading somewhat in my memory, and despite its sexier setting it just didn't involve the audience in the way that The Nest did. Maybe Munrobaggers are inherently more interesting than people who climb 8000m peaks?
TAC 62 Index