The Return

MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling

Neil Cooper, Four stars

IN small town life, everybody knows your business. More importantly perhaps, they also know your name. So it goes in the rural 16th century French community that occupies Ellie Stewart’s dark and elegant mystery as it investigates the existential human consequences of stepping into someone else’s shoes. The cuckoo in the nest here is Arnaud, Thoren Ferguson’s rugged stranger who fills an absence left by the disappearance of Bertrande’s husband when he wandered off into the hills seven years before. Never, Bertrande presumes, to be seen again. Until now, that is. Like Arnaud says, he’s returned a new man.

Drawn from various takes on the real-life story of Martin Guerre, Stewart has constructed a dramatic smoke-screen of beguiling beauty and shadowy erotics. Philip Howard’s touring production for the Inverness-based Eden Court Theatre wraps this in a slow-burning musicality pulsed by brooding cello drones created live by Greg Sinclair, who also plays Arnaud’s son, Sanxi. As Kenneth MacLeod’s rough-hewn set seems to conjure up an entire landscape in miniature, Emilie Patry gives Bertrande a pragmatic earthiness to match.

All of this is driven by the stark boldness of the writing. There’s a richness to Stewart’s stripped-back dialogue that’s awash with terminally guarded exchanges that constantly threaten to spill its secrets out into the open for all the village to see. In the end, it’s as if Arnaud wants to get found out as he sabotages himself as much as the comfort-zone of the domestic bliss he’s built around him. If he’s taken his reinvented self as far as he can go, the second-hand family Arnaud leaves behind will find stories of their own as they work out what they’re willing to believe to fill the void.