At the end of Pilgrims, the one female character (Rachel) tells the two male characters (Will and Dan) that they are not needed any more. It’s symbolic of the journey the character has taken on behalf of her gender throughout the play, which is told in a non-linear way, but still very definitely ends at the end (but with a new beginning).
Because Rachel does not want to be a character in somebody else’s story; she wants to tell the story herself. As part of the PhD she hopes to study she is looking at the representation of women in folk tales and ballads, decrying the fact the woman (usually called Nancy) is always left at home, waving a handkerchief as her “brave and adventurous” love sails off into danger and excitement, leaving her alone on the shore. But she secretly wants to go with him and share those adventures, or even have them in his place.
The symbolism in Elinor Cook’s piece runs deep. On the surface the play is about a love triangle between best friends Dan and Will, and Rachel, who they meet in a bar. Rachel and Will become lovers, but Dan later usurps her affections and the boys’ friendship collapses. The men had been brought together by the mutual love of mountaineering, of climbing and conquering in an oh-so-masculine way. But Rachel does not share Will’s almost militant fascination with challenging himself on these expeditions, and when she falls in with the more practically-minded Dan, she finds more of a soul mate.
But beneath this soapy surface are layers of subtext and symbolism. Cook has built in references and analogies to the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin and the faeries (we hear Fairport Convention, who sang of Tam Lin, before the play begins), while the relevance of Rachel’s Saint Christopher pendant gift to Dan is more powerful than it being merely a good luck charm – Christopher is the patron saint of mountaineering, yes, but also of mariners (those uniformed men who leave their women at home), travel and travellers, and bachelors (all applicable to Dan and Will). In Spain, the Saint Christopher medals are inscribed with the phrase: “If you trust St Christopher, you won’t die in an accident”. Again, this is all very symbolic when we see the use and fate of the gift Rachel gives to Dan.
Steffan Donnelly and Amanda Wilkin as Will and Rachel
Jack Monaghan as Dan
Even Cook’s naming of the characters is steeped in subtext. William derives from the Old German Wilhelm, meaning desire and protection (or helmet) – two words which sum up Will’s passion for climbing – while Rachel derives from a Biblical context meaning “to journey as a ewe that is a good traveller” (subtly appropriate given the play’s ending).
When Dan and Rachel get together, their paths may cross for only a short time unless one of them changes their destiny – Rachel plans to study her PhD in Boston, while Dan plans to carry on with his death-defying mountaineering expeditions with Will during a trip to Peru. If they both go their separate ways, that will be it for their relationship, but in the event, both give up their plans to be with one another. Rachel cancels her Boston trip, and Dan his to South America, but ultimately it is Rachel who gives up the most: after all, a mountaineering trip can be re-staged; the chance to study in Boston probably not.
Dan and Rachel ultimately falter when he begins to miss his previous life of adventure, and when Rachel suggests he and Will make up and try one final expedition, the play comes full circle, ending with tragedy. As for Rachel? She frees herself from both men, claiming she needs neither of them any more (“Does there always have to be a girl?” she asks. “Does she always have to be the prize?”).
All three performers are solid and believable, something the actors have to work even harder at given James Perkins’ set is a simple patterned platform which represents everything from a mountainside to a pub (the imagination goes a long way in this play, helped by Nic Holdridge’s lighting). Amanda Wilkin is utterly convincing as the put-upon but determined Rachel, and the conviction in her self-discovery is tempered by compassion; Jack Monaghan balances Dan’s initial love for adventure and mountaineering with his friend Will with his later romance with Rachel, and depicts the character’s conflict subtly and charmingly; while Steffan Donnelly makes Will both egocentric and flawed. Will is not the most likeable character, but Donnelly injects a natural charm and exuberance which makes it obvious why Rachel finds him attractive.
Cook’s prose is lyrical and poetic in parts, often written in short, sharp bursts which gives the characters’ exchanges a rapid baton-passing delivery. When there are longer lines, often from Rachel, they are tumbling and hurried, like a stream of consciousness from both the character and the playwright. It’s an interesting writing style which places a certain layer of contrivance on the performance. Pilgrims does not go for realism, and it’s always clear you are watching a theatrical presentation rather than an attempt at verisimilitude.
What Elinor Cook is trying to say in Pilgrims about gender inequality, the unpredictable nature of love, and the entrenched masculinity of pioneering adventure and discovery, is jumbled up by her choice to have the play jump about the timeline. We start at the end, then we see how these three people’s lives have interacted at various stages prior to this, but not necessarily in chronological order. Having the end at the beginning, then working back up to that, works well, but the smudging of chronology in the middle confuses the central messages just a little too much.
Pilgrims runs at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, until October 29th, 2016.
Main image: Amanda Wilkin and Jack Monaghan as Rachel and Dan