Theatre review: The Air that Carries the Weight, Edinburgh

Alexandra Mathie as Marion and Pauline Lockhart as Yvonne  in this unconventional drama. Picture: Marc Marnie
Alexandra Mathie as Marion and Pauline Lockhart as Yvonne in this unconventional drama. Picture: Marc Marnie
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There’s something ecstatic about this new play by Rebecca Sharp, which played briefly at the Traverse over the weekend in Muriel Romanes’s final production as artistic director of Scotland’s woman-led company, Stellar Quines.

The Air that Carries the Weight | Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh | Rating ****

There’s a house in Argyll, a kitchen, a staircase, superbly evoked in John Byrne’s green-drenched set, with beautiful lighting by Jeanine Byrne.

In the background, there’s a true-life story, about the life of the great farmer, historian and archaeologist Marion Campbell of Kilberry, who lived and died in these parts between 1919 and 2000. And in the foreground, there are two young modern women, close friends Yvonne and Isobel; Yvonne already gone into whatever world follows this one, and Isobel stunned to find herself the inheritor of her friend’s house, and of the powerful tangle of mystical connections with family, nature and ancient belief-systems, that – for a while – sustained Yvonne’s life there.

So at first, it’s Melody Grove’s beautifully-pitched Isobel who takes centre stage, telling the story of her strange inheritance, and the emotions it brings with it. Her language is beautiful, thoughtful, but at first quite restrained. Then at the house, she “meets Marion”, although we’re never quite sure whether she’s just encountering Marion’s work, and her strange novel The Dark Twin, or might have been in time to meet the woman herself. Alexandra Mathie is simply superb as Marion, radiating a terrific, down-to-earth energy that makes her closeness to past and future, and her openness to the beliefs of the ancient people whose sites she excavates, seem absolutely sensible and right. She sometimes speaks with brisk, earthy compassion and sometimes in rich flights of poetry, but she always sounds more like a well-grounded female preacher saying what needs to be said than a fanciful poetess of the wild.

And then there is Pauline Lockhart as Yvonne, not exactly a ghost, but a permanent presence in the minds and hearts of Isobel and Marion. Wrapped in her long-dead father’s greatcoat, lighting candles in the kitchen, or working in her garden, she somehow gradually “explains” to Isobel the decisions she has made about her life, and her death. Not everyone can live long, she suggests, and moving on is not always the worst thing.

And although Sharp’s play offers no easy conclusions, it stands beautifully poised in the moment we live in, asking us to move sideways, as Yvonne and Isobel do in shifting from Glasgow to Argyll, and to begin to revise our clearly broken relationship with the past, with the natural world, with the kind of language we use to describe our lives, and with the force of life itself. At times, Sharp’s poetry is simply immense.

And although this is a high-risk play – more great flight of lyricism than conventional drama – it makes a hugely fitting coda to Muriel Romanes’s 20 years at Stellar Quines, which have combined a passionate commitment to stories about and for women, and a deep sense of belonging in the complex cultural landscape of Scotland, with a mighty courage in challenging conventional assumptions about theatre and language, a boldness that has always been exemplary, and often, as in this play, downright thrilling.

• Run completed.