In Scottish theatre, there is plenty of realism and hyper-realism, visual lyricism and in-your-face comedy; there is also a grand tradition of pantomime and variety. Light-touch absurdism backed by a powerful poetic vision, though, is relatively rare; so it was a peculiar delight, in November last year, to experience Ellie Stewart’s latest play Hope And Joy – co-produced by Pearlfisher and Stellar Quines – which toured Scotland from Stornoway to Edinburgh, during the autumn season. Staged last year on a beautiful spindly-woodland set by Becky Minto, with lighting by Emma Jones and a fine soundscape by Susan Bear, the play opens in a maternity ward, where Kim Gerrard, as Hope, has just given birth, helped on her way by the soothing presence of hospital cleaner Joy, a woman who seems to have seen it all.
Joy is therefore able to take things in her stride when it becomes apparent that Hope’s offspring is not so much a baby as a large and beautiful egg, the product of a brief encounter between Hope, a professional ornithologist, and a particularly graceful male swan. The story that follows – covering the first 20 years in the life of Hope’s winged son Magnus – offers both a timeless metaphorical reflection on the shocks, surprises and joys of motherhood; and also a deep insight into this 21st century moment of essential change in the relationship between humanity and the natural world.
For this Scotsman Session, director Caitlin Skinner and the company decided to focus the film on the extraordinary work of BSL interpreter Catherine King, who worked with the cast on last year’s production and tour. In this version of the play’s opening scene, we therefore hear the wonderful voices of original cast members Kim Gerrard and Beth Marshall playing Hope and Joy, while in vision, we see Catherine King’s BSL version of their conversation, filmed from two different angles; and the effect is extraordinary, as these three powerful performers come together to evoke a vital shared moment of female experience.
Ellie Stewart is a fast-emerging Scottish playwright who has written plays on strong feminist themes for A Play, A Pie And A Pint and for BBC Radio Scotland. In 2018, Eden Court Theatre staged a powerful touring production of Stewart’s play The Return, based on the classic Martin Guerre story of the man who returns to his wife after many years away, but turns out to be an impostor; and in Hope And Joy, she seems to find a new and highly distinctive voice, full of wit, energy, poetry, and a wonderful, searching intelligence.
In her own programme note, last year, she wrote that she wanted to create a play that would “explore our capacity to adapt, and to embrace otherness. In Hope and Joy’s world, changes to the environment have provoked a radical shift in nature, and they are caught up in an unprecedented stage in evolution. In the play, we see them help each other navigate that new landscape.” So it’s more than fitting that this special Scotsman Sessions version encourages us to embrace another major shift, in the growing creative presence on our stages of British Sign Language, and the communities that use it; and to consider the sheer power of Catherine King’s performance, as she evokes not only the interaction between two beautifully observed female characters, but also the mighty beat of wings, that sets the whole story in motion.
The Return and Hope And Joy are published by Salamander Street Press, at £10.99 (paperback)
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