REVIEW: The Return
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THERE are many reasons Eden Court’s production of Ellie Stewart’s The Return is a must-see now.
That is 'now' as in this week when this new playwright’s first full work debuts and sets off on tour across Scotland. And 'now' as in 'this moment' when the play has been newly produced by Eden Court which is now facing a major funding cut - will it be able to afford to make its own work like this in the near future? The Return is the kind of ambitious enterprise that makes you hope another production from the theatre of this quality might follow.
The play puts identity under the microscope, from gender to ‘local’, to belonging and what it is like to turn up as a refugee. Or - to use an example from the play - to be a stranger where everyone eats their apples a different way from you.
All these ideas are on your mind after seeing - what on paper - is just another re-working of the much-explored, partly-true story of Martin Guerre.
Stranger Arnaud encounters a deserted wife Bertrande and her son Sanxi at their Pyrenean home and shape-shifts – or turns back – into the lost husband Martin Guerre, absent for seven years.
Writer Ellie Stewart and director Philip Howard use a host of “languages” – music, dance, shepherds’ whistling, touch, sex, storytelling, jokes – to help us explore the evolution of the characters’ story.
First meeting the confident Bertrande (Emilie Patry) herding her sheep around her home, stranger Arnaud, looking for work, offers advice..
“That one has foot rot, that’s why the vultures are hanging about,” he helpfully tells her.
Then he offers Bertrande an apple before crunching into one of his own.
“Is that how they eat their apples in Spain?” the woman asks him before cutting off the skin of her apple with a knife. "This is how we eat our apples here.”
As they get to know each other they swap dialect words from their own regions – possibly Basque or Spanish, Arnaud’s “tickling” pools where you find fish are “guddling” pools in Bertrande’s world.
A little later when Arnaud’s safety is possibly under threat from suspicious villagers, Bertrande declares that for him to fit more easily into the ways of her community “... you would have to cut your apples”.
Subtle performances and beat-perfect timing unite the small ensemble of Emilie Patry, Thoren Ferguson as Arnaud/ Martin and Greg Sinclair, who is jointly Sanxi and the production’s gifted cello-playing composer.
Music is almost another character in the production creating tone, mood, cues and setting with folk songs and cello instrumental adding celebrations and melancholy. The instrument is especially powerful when angry Sanxi argues with his mum using only harsh cello notes to give his side.
Throughout, the playwright has her three characters constantly retell and rejig a traditional folk tale about a bear and shepherdess with the story mirroring the trio’s evolving roles. Sometimes the bear brings gifts of fruit and flowers to the shepherdess, once in the story he takes off his fur coat to reveal a man, in a later version there's a wolf underneath and once the shepherdess kills and harvests the bear for survival.
The set provides a useful grey mass that works well as everything from mountain peaks – across which Bertrande and Arnaud use the Spanish shepherds’ whistling language to communicate – to the intimate bed that cradles the lovers complete with Bertrande’s impressively vocal response to Arnaud’s technique for sex – or “joy” as he calls it.
But one criticism of designer Kevin MacLeod’s cute little croft-style houses dotted across the scene is that they evoke Scotland when the rest of the production works hard to set a convincingly Pyrenean setting.
Ellie Stewart’s deft play offers an insightful, sparkling look at identity and belonging, also fearlessly exploring the slippery border countries of truth, love and transformation.
The raw familiar Martin Guerre tale becomes a taut emotional drama in The Return, tearing away layers of half-truths and using quickfire, often humorous lines - and silences - to build fragile relationships we come to believe in too. MC
The Return tou goes to the Macphail Centre, Ullapool on Monday, March 5; Lochcarron Village Hall on Wednesday, March 7 and Boat of Garten Community Hall on Thursday, March 8. More details: www.eden-court.co.uk