MURIEL Romanes says she's fed up with doing what's expected of her.
As the artistic director of Stellar Quines, a theatre company aiming to "nurture, produce and promote the work of women", she worries that things have become too cosy. Putting women centre stage shouldn't mean producing touchy-feely shows that are all fluffy bunnies and pink ankle socks - and to be fair on her, the work of Stellar Quines has never been that. But she has reached a point when she's ready to stretch herself - and her audiences - and that means not performing to type.
"As I become more aged, I'm less interested in doing one play after another," she says during a break in rehearsals at the Byre Theatre in St Andrews. "I want the company to be more vigorous and take more risks. We've done all the plays like The Memory Of Water and The Clearing - the kind of plays you would expect a women's theatre company to do. I want us to dare a bit more and not to be predictable."
Since setting up in the early 90s, Stellar Quines has established a reputation for high-quality touring drama with a significant, but not exclusive, female voice. As Romanes points out, the vast majority of theatre tickets are bought by women (who bring their men-folk with them), yet women call relatively few of the shots on stage. All of Scotland's major theatre buildings are run by men and, with significant exceptions such as Vicky Featherstone at the National Theatre of Scotland, Cathie Boyd at Theatre Cryptic and Gill Robertson at Catherine Wheels, there are few touring companies with women at the helm.
Stellar Quines, however, was never a women's company in the 1970s mould. It isn't about dungarees and radical feminism. True to the liberal spirit of our times, the company sets out to correct the gender imbalance rather than pursue a separatist agenda and it has never excluded male voices. Neither has it made sexual inequality the subject of its productions, focusing instead on a range of experiences, from bereavement to bullying, from illness to immigration, that better reflect the female experience than your average male-driven drama.
WITH PLAYS SUCH as Wit, The Reel Of The Hanged Man and Perfect Pie, the company has built up a loyal audience. Even if its 2005 Edinburgh International Festival premiere, 3000 Troubled Threads, attracted few new fans, it showed Stellar Quines had the technical wherewithal and artistic ambition to compete on an international stage. After leading the company for more than a decade (initially as co-director with Gerda Stevenson, who resigned in 2000 after an artistic row), Romanes has resolved to continue in that direction.
"We're starting to do international work in Montreal and Romania," she says. "Women are still absolutely at the heart of it, but I want us to be on the edge. We have a very loyal audience, but I think sometimes we're delivering work that they expect of us and I want to challenge them a bit more."
The Unconquered, she believes, is the first step along this path. It is written by Torben Betts, who is male and English and amused to be working for a Scottish women's company. The one stipulation that Romanes gave him was he should write a strong leading role for a woman, something that comes naturally to him anyway. "I tend to write equal parts for men and women," he says, arguing that actors are at the heart of the theatre and it's his job to serve them.
Acclaimed by Liz Lochhead as "just about the most original and extraordinary writer of drama we have," the 38-year-old has two contradictory reputations. One is for writing the kind of domestic drama that goes down a treat at Alan Ayckbourn's Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, where he was once writer in residence. The other is for turning out poetic tragedies of breadth and ambition in the manner of Howard Barker. His name has also been mentioned in the same breath as Pinter, Beckett, Albee and Bond. "My publisher said I was risking career suicide because I build up an audience for a certain kind of play and then write another type of play that makes them never want to see my work again," he laughs.
Brought up in Sussex, educated at Liverpool University and now living with his young family in Berwick-upon-Tweed, Betts first came into contact with Romanes when she directed A Listening Heaven, his play about a dysfunctional family, at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum in 2001. She saw how wonderfully Betts wrote for women and returned to him for more. But where the last play was a realistic domestic drama, the new one is a surreal tragi-comedy with overtones of Tom And Jerry and Samuel Beckett.
In The Unconquered, the playwright imagines a Britain that has undergone a political revolution - and a counter-revolution. Instead of complaining from the margins, the people suddenly have to deal with power and put their beliefs into practice. While the outside world comes to terms with the new order, a mercenary soldier bursts in on a sheltering family to find a fiercely independent young woman who has yet to be conquered by the new regime. "I was having an argument with someone over whether socialism was dead and what you would replace the system with," says Betts. "I got to thinking if there was a socialist revolution in this country, what form would it take? That's the backdrop."
The family at the heart of the story had been happy with the status quo and can only react to events as they find them in a fast-moving, blackly comic play Lochhead describes as a "political Beckett on speed". It's poetic, says assistant director Alan Wilson, in the way Shakespeare's most gory play, Titus Andronicus, is poetic. "Hellish events happen," says Wilson. "Torben strips away the surface and you get to see the frightened heart of these characters. He pins them down and they squirm and wriggle and you see them trying to sort themselves out."
"Muriel said that as long as there was a decent part for a woman, there were no restrictions," says Betts. "I want the opportunity to go somewhere I haven't been before, to test myself and my own sense of theatricality and with this play I could do that."
"Plays like this I find very exciting," says Romanes. "Terrifying physically and vocally one of the most challenging plays I know. They have to be like racehorses."
If the play is less comfortable than previous Stellar Quines work, Romanes is bolstered by the audience reaction from two sold-out rehearsed readings in 2004. "People said this is the kind of play they had been waiting to see for a very long time," she says.
Her adventurousness is not confined to the choice of material, but can also be found in her collaborators. Instead of a conventional set designer, she's brought in artist Keith McIntyre to create a two-dimensional comic-book environment, all distorted perspectives and black ink, to match the cartoon comedy of the play. "He started at the same time as us in the rehearsal room, creating things as we needed them," she says about McIntyre, who last worked in the theatre on Communicado's Jock Tamson's Bairns in 1990 and The Legend Of St Julian in 1993. "It means the actors are familiar with the aesthetic from the start. It's wonderful when you're working with another artist who's bringing even more into the mix."
From such artistic adventures she draws energy for the future. "All that's left for me to do now is be ambitious," says Romanes, whose company will make its London debut as part of The Unconquered tour. "I want us to be rigorous and vigorous. We have to take risks with our audience and I get the sense that if it works, they'll go with it. That's exhilarating."
• The Unconquered, Byre Theatre, St Andrews, February 14-17 and on tour until March 31