Theatre: Cromwell's Ireland, Milosevic's Yugoslavia

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The Independent Culture
IN REVIVING last year's successful production of Helen Edmundson's second play, premiered at the Bush in 1993 to general acclaim, Scotland's Stellar Quines company once again harnesses the capacity of its narrative, set amid Cromwell's forced eviction of Irish landowners and tenants during the 1650s, to focus our minds on the roots of current events.

Edmundson was spurred to write The Clearing by the former-Yugoslav civil war, but despite its intentional and continuing topicality, it is in many respects a highly old-fashioned play - in the most potent and sophisticated sense. It addresses its questions about what we now call "ethnic cleansing" - centrally, why and how do such atrocities overwhelm formerly peaceful co-existence - through a story-based route, and by making us care about the individuals it depicts.

The primary framework for the tale is the doomed love triangle of young Irish bride Madeleine (Veronica Leer), her English landowner husband Robert (Hugh Lee), and adoptive sister Killaine (Helen Lomax). We open on the household as a seeming idyll of happiness and hope, with the birth of the couple's first child, but whose private felicity offers scant defence against the forces of sectarian realpolitik mustering outside.

Also caught up in the gathering tragedy are Robert's yeoman-farmer neighbours, Solomon and Susanah Winter (Gareth Thomas and Janette Foggo), Maddy's childhood sweetheart turned rebel outlaw, Pierce Kinsella (Rory Casey), and Cromwellian overseer, Sir Charles Sturman, portrayed with fanatic conviction by Kern Falconer. This last performance occasionally threatens to spill into boo-hiss caricature, but at the same time searingly conveys the destructiveness of intolerant zealotry towards the oppressor as well as the oppressed. The simple, stockaded design of Jan Bee Brown's set, meanwhile, reinforces the mounting sense of siege.

Though the contemporary relevance of the action and dialogue is consistently apparent, it never overburdens the drama, thanks to Edmundsen's ability to create characters who speak and behave with authentic individuality while simultaneously embodying a more general fate or dilemma. Her writing wears this density with admirable lightness, but demands performances that do no less, a requirement impressively met by Muriel Romanes's production, most vitally in the casting of Madeleine. A heroine who is equally robust and romantic, girlish and timelessly insightful, in the wrong hands she could easily turn into a Celtic-twilit bold colleen of the most cringe-making type.

Leer, though, brings a magical buoyancy and no-nonsense groundedness to the role, together with a wonderfully artless turn of phrase that places her squarely as the drama's emotional anchor. Foggo provides strong though understated support as the simple, upright country matron forced to cope with calamity on a scale she never dreamed possible, while Lee's wide- eyed, hapless boyishness adds greatly to the impact of Robert's ultimate choice between land and love.

Touring nationally until 6 November; details, 0131-343 3146