Theatre: Stellar triumph of quality over quantity

The Clearing Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Having staged three previous major productions since its formation in 1993, Scotland's Stellar Quines company - set up to promote work by women theatre professionals, "in collaboration with men who share their vision" - certainly aren't chasing any prizes for their output rate. But in concentrating their resources, they have already established a reputation for rigorous quality, trampling quietly but emphatically underfoot any carpings about ghettoisation. This Scottish premiere of Helen Edmundsen's second play, showered with praise and awards on its London debut five years ago, marks their maiden outing with an already established text, and probably their strongest company showing yet.

Set in Cromwell's Ireland, amid the increasingly brutal and indiscriminate eviction of those perceived as tainted by Royalism or popery, Edmundsen's depiction of families and neighbours, even husbands and wives, torn asunder by fanatical calls to ethnic and political loyalties is all too pertinent more than three centuries after the events it draws on. The cornerstone of her treatment, however, is an avoidance of the overtly didactic in favour of a story-based route, describing the doomed love triangle of Madeleine, a young Irish bride, her English landowner husband Robert, and adoptive sister Killaine; a household on which we open 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.

The seeming simplicity of this narrative, human-centred approach belies the toughness and precisely-fashioned detail of Edmundsen's dramatic construction: her characters' facility for speaking and behaving with authentic individuality while simultaneously embodying a more general fate or dilemma; her near- seamless interweaving of all the salient historical facts, and - presumably the primary reason for its revival here - her ability to create strong, complex and commanding female roles without its ever seeming self-conscious or heavy-handed.

Her writing wears this density with sure-footed lightness, but demands performances that do no less - which is exactly what Muriel Romanes's production supplies, centrally in the shape of Veronica Leer as Madeleine. A heroine comprised of equal parts robustness and romance, girlishness and timeless insight, in the wrong hands she could easily turn into a Celtic-twilit bold colleen of the most cringe-making type, but Leer lends her both a buoyancy and a groundedness - together with a wonderfully artless turn of phrase and manner - that places her squarely as the drama's emotional heart and anchor.

There's assured, powerful support from all sides, however, with Hugh Lee bringing a wide-eyed, hapless boyishness to the role of Robert, Bernard Horsfall in musically resonant form as their neighbour Solomon, and Kern Falconer exerting a diabolical chill as the zealot governor Sturman, albeit threatening at times to spill into boo-hiss caricature.

Touring throughout Scotland until April 25; details on 0131 343 3146

Sue Wilson

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