We’re somewhere among the Western Isles, and at least a thousand years back in time. Ronnat and her daughter Brigid live a simple life on a small island, looking after the cows owned by the monastery across the water. The cows are old, however; their milk is poor and increasingly hard to turn into butter, regardless of the old pagan spells spoken (in Gaelic) during its churning. While the two women have a settled life, it quickly becomes clear that it’s an increasingly fragile one; not least because the women’s few resources are being increasingly consumed by the unseen monks’ grand plans to create a new, beautifully illustrated book.
There’s obvious hypocrisy here that reflects on our own times, but the meat of Stewart’s play is the question of who gets to sets the ethical rules in a community.
And then a man is washed ashore, an escapee from slavery called Fari. “If he dies I have him, if he lives you have him,” says the young bone-collecting Brigid, but once the recovered Fari becomes the monastery’s boatman, regularly visiting the women for their milk and butter, he soon enough “has” both of them—independently. Inevitably—and, admittedly, bordering on the cliché here—the less careful Brigid subsequently bears his child, a son. Women are, of course, banned from the unseen “Monks’ island”—a source of “mischief”, according to its inhabitants. Yet they’re all too interested in this baby boy; Mischief’s final crisis arises when the monks claim the boy as their own on the grounds that he’s the child of their late Abbot’s child with Ronnat. (And a boy, obviously.)
There’s obvious hypocrisy here that reflects on our own times, but the meat of Stewart’s play is the question of who gets to sets the ethical rules in a community. This is emphasised by director Gerda Stevenson’s use of music, poetry and movement—the entwining of Gerda in white cloth to symbolise her pregnancy, for example—which strongly suggests that the women are much more “at one” with the natural world, and themselves, compared to the largely unseen men who are willing to exploit their neighbours and use limited food resources in order to create “a blue no one has seen before” for “the Book”—almost certainly the iconic Book of Kells.
A disappointingly heteronormative conclusion notwithstanding, Stevenson draws out some fine performances from her cast. David Rankine has that dangerous naive charm which makes him a believable lover of both women. Alison McFarlane may at times be too overtly strident as the teenager desperate to escape her life on the island, but blossoms in the latter stages of the play. However, the star performance is undoubtedly Elspeth Turner’s far from showy Ronnat; full of life, vigour, humour and anguish, Turner gives us a wise woman in every sense of the word, who is nevertheless willing to give up the people she loves in order to ensure their safety.