Theatre: Tinkers, tourers, devil and all

The Maiden Stone Hampstead
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The Independent Culture
The Scottish legend that underpins The Maiden Stone, Rona Munro's new play at Hampstead, tells of a woman tempted to erotic thoughts by the devil and then turned to stone. Was her petrification a punishment for admitting to a sexuality? Or does the obdurate monument testify to her table-turning strength?

Winner of the first Peggy Ramsay Play Award, the drama is set in the early 19th century in north-east Scotland, and may come as a surprise to those who know Munro's work either from Bold Girls, her excellent tribute to the spirit of Belfast women, or from Ladybird, Ladybird, her harrowing screenplay about a mother whose children are hauled into care.

In taking a leap back into history, The Maiden Stone seems to suffer at times from a touch of the Howard Barkers, an unfortunate condition that encourages dramatists to transport extreme versions of current problems to a vaguely recreated and thus conveniently malleable period of the past. The play shows you the tragicomic collision between poverty-stricken locals and a touring troupe of English thespians, headed by Frances Tomelty's excellent Harriet. One of the "Barnets of Huddersfield", she eloped with an actor as a teenager and now comes the grande dame even when the company's fortunes reduce them to sleeping in a pig-sty. Munro has apparently based this character's career (on-the-road pregnancies etc) on documentary evidence. But the conditions of such touring remain irritatingly unclear. Why, for example, are they battling through snowy north-east Scotland when a winter tour of the south would be the saner solution?

"Ay, I had a man, a bonny loon... he just tugged the pleasure out of me, like my holy well with laughing...": a good deal of the play is written in the Doric dialect, and at times you feel subtitles would be appropriate. The above speech, one of the intelligible ones, is delivered by Harriet's wet nurse, the formidable tinker Bidie (Carol Ann Crawford). Through her, the story of the maiden stone is re-enacted. Astride a cart pulled by her wild brood of children, she is now the pursuer rather than the pursued, hunting down her diabolic former husband.

The play's best sections are those where this latter, a mysterious travelling tinker, splendidly performed by Alexander Morton, drives disastrous bargains with other characters. But neither the script nor Matthew Lloyd's vivid production (which also has a Howard Barker-ish feel in its tragic jokiness) convince you that there aren't two plays here masquerading as one. By the end, the girl (Shirley Henderson) earlier seen setting off to be an actress, has slept with the devil, and her baby has been left to die of exposure by Harriet. It's an odd CV, but I think the play wants us to think it will stand her in good stead.

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