The female-focused theatre company which has slowly but surely become a fantastical force in Scottish theatre may appear to be shrinking – if the size of their new show is anything to go by – but in actual fact the company's artistic imagination is more expansive than ever. The last two Stellar Quines productions, Age of Arousal and ANA, were big, main-stage affairs that looked at sex and sensuality through a woman's eyes via a form of magical realism that defined the Quebecois roots of both plays.
The company's new show, The List, which won a Bank of Scotland Herald Angel on Saturday and is having an Edinburgh Festival Fringe run at Summerhall before going out on a brief Scottish tour, is also by a Quebecois playwright. In sharp contrast to the other plays, however, Jennifer Tremblay's piece is an intimate work written for one actor, who must look the audience full in the face as she confesses her role in a neighbour's death.
While ANA took five years to reach the stage, in a bilingual production that opened in Montreal before opening in Scotland, Stellar Quines director Muriel Romanes has taken a mere six months to get Tremblay's play an English-language production.
"It's a beautiful piece of work," she says as she prepares for previews of The List in Peebles. "I picked up on Jennifer's play when we were in Montreal with ANA. I kept hearing about it and reading great reviews of it, and as soon as I read it I knew I wanted to do it. I just love Quebecois work. It's so theatrical and so passionate, and there's a real affinity with Scottish work in that way."
As performed by Maureen Beattie, the new translation of The List certainly promises much in the passion stakes, however ordinary the story may sound.
"I suppose I kind of recognised myself in it, as I think everybody will," Romanes explains. "We spend our whole life making lists of things, and end up not doing things. This woman is an inveterate list-maker, and is asked by her neighbour to do something for her, which she puts at the top of her list. Then it slips down the list as other things come up, and because of this, her neighbour dies, and the play is this woman explaining this to us, eyeballing the audience as she does so, so she's really in the dock.
"That in itself doesn't sound that theatrical, but it's the text that's theatrical. It's called The List, and on the page that's what it looks like, and that's how we're doing it as well."
The story itself came out of Tremblay's experience after she effectively exiled herself in an isolated village in Quebec. A real-life death rocked the small community she lived among, and inspired her to question how people can cut themselves off from each other so easily.
Romanes may downplay The List's theatricality beyond Tremblay's words, but she has nevertheless brought in a crack squad to accentuate Shelley Tepperman's translation. As one of the most fearless and eminently watchable performers in the UK, Maureen Beattie's presence in the play should be worth the ticket price alone. The play's mood should be further heightened by Jeanine Davis's lighting design, as well as a new sound score by Philip Pinsky. Stellar Quines have managed something of a coup, however, by getting no less a personage than celebrated artist and playwright John Byrne to design both the set and costumes.
"I first worked with John as an actress when he designed the set for The Fantastical Feats of Finn MacCool in 1974," says Romanes, remembering one of the lesser-sung home-grown epics of its era. A young Romanes appeared alongside the likes of Bill Paterson in Kenny (then known as Ian) Ireland's production of Sean McCarthy's play, produced by the Young Lyceum company at Haymarket Ice Rink in Edinburgh.
Since that very crucial period in Scotland's theatrical history, Romanes has been at the forefront of new developments, including appearing in the Tron's now legendary Scots translation of Michel Tremblay's play The Guid Sisters, which arguably kicked off the Scots/Quebec theatrical alliance. A new National Theatre of Scotland production of the play, directed by Serge Dennencourt, who directed ANA for Stellar Quines, will open in the autumn.
Since co-founding Stellar Quines in 1993, Romanes has provided a crucial platform for female artists that has gone beyond any notions of box-ticking tokenism to produce major international collaborations. While recent funding changes has left the company in an insecure and vulnerable position, Stellar Quines ploughs on regardless. For such an established company to be putting on work in such a young venue as Summerhall is significant in itself in terms of how willing Romanes is to embrace new ways of working.
As for the work itself, Stellar Quines have ambitious plans to work with brand new 3D technology as well as continuing their Rehearsal Room series of readings of new plays, many of which have gone on to full production.
"If you work in different spaces," Romanes observes, "writers are going to be influenced by that, and out of that will perhaps come a new way of writing plays."
The List, Summerhall, until August 25, 2pm, www.summerhall.co.uk, then touring to The Byre Theatre, St Andrews (Aug 30), Cumbernauld Theatre (Aug 31) and Birnam Arts, Dunkeld (Sep 1).
Contextual targeting label: