Written for The Stage
After the group hustle and bustle of The Girls of Slender Means at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Maureen Beattie returns to the Stellar Quines Theatre Company as an isolated mother in The List. Jennifer Tremblay’s poetic play examines the inner terrain of the female psyche, and reminds us we all need to be more compassionate to those around us.
A woman is struggling to adjust to the seclusion of her new rural neighbourhood. To cope with her increasing frustrations, she becomes obsessed with making lists. “Milk, cheese, nappies, wash sheets, do tax, pick up prescriptions” – the jobs go on and on, and she is meticulous in carrying them out. But when she puts down an item for a friend and forgets to do it, her carelessness has tragic consequences.
Playwrights often put women out to pasture after they have become mothers, believing their stories become less interesting. But Tremblay more than proves that domestic doesn’t mean dreary. Her narrator is a neurotic bundle of conflicting wants and needs – a woman who longs for friendship but won’t go to parties to find it, who’s jealous of another woman’s child but contemptuous of this mother’s free parenting style.
Increasingly peppered throughout this monologue, the to do lists begin to form part of the structure of the play, their items becoming the scaffolding that holds both it and this woman together. The lists add a sense of poetry and abstract formal beauty. Tremblay’s artistry is not only in her subject but in her form.
Beattie holds this highly strung woman’s conflicts together in a potent but subtle performance. While her clear blue eyes house storms within them and her face is a lively indicator of her passion, she never allows these enormous emotions to crescendo into melodrama. With the audience looking down, perched on tall benches in the Anatomy Lecture Theatre in Summerhall, Beattie’s vulnerability seems magnified under our gaze, but she carries the pressure fearlessly.
Director Muriel Romanes choreographs Beattie around the stage with assured ease in a classy staging. Philip Pinsky’s expressionistic score adds a shock of terror to the proceedings, while John Byrne and Roland Fraser’s stunning set curves around Beattie like a prison. It mirrors the half moon shape of the dark wooden benches we’re sat on, completing a perfect circle between performer and audience.
This wall of green metal brings to mind the fields that torment Beattie. It is at once immovable and flexible – when she hears about what has befallen her friend, it bends under her weight as she crashes backwards into it and her shock becomes palpable. Just out of sight, a tiny toy house sits to one side, encouraging us to take an eagle-eyed perspective on her predicament.
The List dissects navel-gazing and self-obsession. It is a call to arms for a more aware and outward-looking society. But this play, rich with images and abstraction, is also a leap into one woman’s subconscious and a sophisticated piece of emotional expressionism.