Sylvia Dow’s Woman Walking arrives at the Traverse Theatre (and a full house on opening night). A philosophical two-hander inspired by the life of Scottish literary great Nan Shepherd, the play is aptly set amongst her beloved Cairngorms. It’s here we meet Cath (Pauline Lockhart), toiling alone for the plateau, carrying with her guilt and trauma over the death of her mother, whilst grief follows after.
Cath has one more item in her knapsack, a copy of Shepherd’s seminal memoir, The Living Mountain. Perhaps thanks to this talisman, Nan Shepherd (Fletcher Mathers) has come along for the walk. There’s little time wasted over the appearance of a woman dead since 1981. Instead, Cath seems to have expected this manifestation, though her initial reaction is frosty, to say the least. Woman Walking is certainly no ghost story, Nan’s conjuration is a product of her intimate association with a landscape she knew, and wrote about so well.
What becomes immediately clear is that Nan and Cath might share an appetite for mountains, but not a great deal else. Indeed their outlooks upon life are rather different. Mathers and Lockhart embody these viewpoints extremely well, fully rounded, distinct personalities encountering and responding one to another. There’s a subtle sophistication to Dow’s dialogue which both actors respond well to, their conversation evolving through several phases without a need for excessive exposition.
Lockhart’s Cath wears solitude like armour, rejecting company for fear it place her in touch with her own humanity. Still, some part of her, drawn to Shepherd’s writing, brings forth the writer to challenge her outlook. Perhaps reflecting the vivacity of Nan’s writing, she emerges as an independent voice, an advocate of a life integrated with the land, and the animals, and people who occupy it. Cath cannot grieve for her mother, cannot find freedom, even on the slopes of the Cairngorms, if she will not acknowledge her own truths.
However, there is a healing power to nature, Dow, and Shepherd suggest. The deceased writer tapped into it, a balm to the many emotional wounds which accompany any life. It’s available to Cath, and if it’s no panacea, still it might just reach places, other therapies cannot. Further, Woman Walking enjoys a rich seam of humour, sparks flying between the two women in shades of sarcasm, nose-pulling, and absurdity. From Cath’s unfortunate history with her mother’s ashes, to Shepherd marvelling at, and struggling with, a smartphone, it’s well observed, sharply written comedy.
At a tidy 1 hour and 5 minutes, Woman Walking is a compact play, and so there’s no time for excessive tale telling, or rehashing of personal histories. Much goes unspoken, themes embodied in critical moments from each life, and in episodic clashes of philosophies, between dramatic encounters with the mountain, it’s wildlife and its weather. Director Becky Hope-Palmer paces the show well, allowing moments of stillness without excessive opportunities for navel gazing. Between Designer Karen Tennent and Lighting Designer Laura Hawkins, the mountain is well embodied through map decoupaged boxes, and atmospheric, shifting hues. Sound Design is critical to Woman Walking, the sounds of the highlands, and recorded snippets of Shepherd’s writings offering yet another dimension.
If the play fell into the trap of constructing a traditional mentor/pupil relationship, or claimed to naturalistic cure-alls for all of life’s woes, the play would fail. Instead, it manages to simultaneously celebrate a great Scottish writer, whilst finding practical wisdom in both her texts, and the unusual, enabling peace she found outdoors.
Now, the finale of Woman Walking could be stronger, and rely more on the talents of its cast, rather than the passivity inherent to a recording. Otherwise, Dow’s play is a fine two-hander. Engrossing, atmospheric, and sophisticated, Woman Walking is a fine tribute to Shepherd, and a gentle celebration of the healing power of nature.
Woman Walking is produced by Sylvian Productions with support from Perth Theatre, and Creative Scotland.
Show Details – Traverse dates
Dates: 20 – 21 Oct 2023
Age Recommendation: 12+
Running Time: 1 hour 5 minutes – no interval
- Wheelchair Accessible Venue
- Wheelchair Accessible Toilet