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Ellie Stewart's new play for Eden Court has the Guerre essentials

By Kyle Walker

Playwright Ellie Stewart.
Playwright Ellie Stewart.

Identity, humanity, circumstance – the latest in-house production from Eden Court is dealing with the loftiest of ideas.

Written by Ellie Stewart and directed by Philip Howard, The Return is based on the true story of Martin Guerre – the 16th Century Pyrenees peasant at the centre of one of history’s most famous cases of imposture, after a man (Arnaud) spent three years assuming his identity following a war, all the while living with Martin’s wife Bertrande.

And making a return of her own would prove just the creative impetus that Ellie needed to kickstart her “obsessional” writing of the play that will soon make its debut at Eden Court.

“I’d lived in Toulouse just for a year when I was maybe 20, 21, then went back 25 years later,” the Livingston playwright explained.

“You know when you go back to a place – or quite often quite unexpectedly actually - a smell will bring back a memory, or the quality of the light, or something sensory? It’s kind of a memory, but it’s more of what I call a sensory memory than an intellectual memory.

“So I felt quite overwhelmed by that experience, and I think that’s why I wrote it now. There’ll be something in it that hopefully has an emotional truth that I’m drawing on. Emotional truth I think is what I’m pursuing.”

Questions continue to this day about so many different facets of the case that The Return explores. What manner of circumstances led to this? How much did Bertrande know? Was she aware that the man who claimed to be her husband was an imposter?

And it was these questions that drew the playwright to explore the story – and bring her own ideas to it. “Bertrande’s role in the actual story, in the actual account, is obviously pivotal,” she explained.

“I think I was trying to find the emotional truth of what might have happened there and then, or what might happen in that situation in any time and place – literally put myself inside Bertrande’s shoes and ask myself, ‘What would you do if this man returned?’

“In doing so, I think, without giving too much away, the historical truth became a starting point for the exploration. So quite soon the story I was telling became more important than the historical account that was left to us.”

Not that the historical account isn’t absolutely fascinating, of course. In many ways, the idea that somebody could impersonate another person within the community he lived in for so long – even with the ravages of war all around – is a mind boggling idea.

“It’s incredibly interesting!” she said. “Over two or three years he played this role, or he was accepted by the community even though they weren’t sure or whatever.

“The games that must have gone on during that time, I think the relationships and the emotions of it interested me more. It’s very much about the people at home in the heart of it living it in the moment.”

The Return director Philip Howard.
The Return director Philip Howard.

It’s a play that Ellie has been putting together for some time – and by happy accident, it was just what Eden Court and Philip Howard were looking for.

When the city theatre asked the director to return for another production with them, after their previous collaboration on 2015’s critically-acclaimed revival of Not About Heroes, he had already been workshopping The Return with Ellie.

“It was a series of fortunate events if you like!” Ellie laughed. “I asked Philip Howard and three performers to come out to Livingston to workshop it with me one day, because I’d got to a stage where I felt I wanted to bounce it about a bit before the next rewrite.

“I did the rewrite, and then I was about to submit it to, I was about to start sending it about places, and by amazing good fortune by that point Philip was approached by Eden Court to ask him would he like to direct another new play this year – they’d already established a relationship, it’d been a happy one.

“So then Philip went away to think about what play he’d like to work on, and he said that The Return just started to move to the top of his head – excitingly for me!”

And having it so fully formed by the time it was officially commissioned helped slightly. “Some of the work had already been done, so there wasn’t the same time pressure as sometimes maybe there is.

“I like to develop things over a long period of time, and so there’s more time to really delve deep into the text as opposed to, ‘Yikes, I’ve got to write a play!’”

This production might be the latest in Eden Court’s in-house productions – “There’s actually not that many theatre spaces throughout Scotland now who are managing to produce new work,” Ellie says – yet for Ellie this marks a series of personal firsts.

“I’ve had short plays produced, and I’ve had a Play, Pie and a Pint thing done, but that was strictly a 45 minute play.

“So this is two big new things for me – one, my first what you might call a ‘full’ production of a short length play. I think it’s about an hour and 15, with no interval, but it does give you time to kind of get into the meat of it.

“And it’s my first touring play, which cannot make me happier – it’s really exciting! I’m not quite going to be a groupie yet, I’ve got a family at home – but I could just take them with me!”

It also marks new territory for Ellie to explore as a writer – the added length granted giving her a new scope. “It feels like this is a new voice, maybe a slightly bolder voice as well.

“Thinking back now, I think the courage has come from the fact that Philip Howard has been involved in a kind of dramaturgical role since last January when we had the workshop. I think he’s seen possibilities sometimes that I might have drawn back from and he’s urged me just to go for it.

“I don’t really choose what I write about in a cerebral way. I do try to draw on what I call my own real emotional, visceral life if you like. I’ve always loved this story – who wouldn’t, eh?”

The Return by Ellie Stewart makes its world premiere at Eden Court on Thursday, February 15, and runs until Saturday, February 17 before touring Scotland. Future Highland dates include the Macphail Centre in Ullapool on Monday, March 5, Lochcarron Village Hall on Wednesday, March 7, and Boat of Garten Community Hall on Thursday, March 8. For more information: www.eden-court.co.uk

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