JOYCE MCMILLAN on STELLA at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for The Scotsman 20.11.13.
3 stars ***
THE SUBTITLE says it all, about this new play by Siobhan Nicholas, briefly at the Traverse this week. Co-produced by Take The Space with The Old Market in Hove and Greenwich Theatre, Stella is “a story of women, their men, and astronomy”; and it uses the fictional story of a modern woman astronomer called Jessica, torn between her husband and her work, as a glass through which to view the life of Caroline Herschel, sister of the great 18th century astronomer William Herschel, who in 1781 discovered the planet Uranus.
In an interwoven narrative built around Jessica’s efforts to research Caroline’s life, the play builds a persuasive portrait of Caroline as one of history’s great unsung army of gifted women who had to content themselves with acting as assistants to their menfolk, rather than pursuing independent careers – in Caroline’s case, as an acclaimed singer. Siobhan Nicholas’s script is often heavy on awkward historical exposition, with Chris Barnes, as Herschel, obliged to carry heavy loads of scientific explanation, as he trains his younger sister to become an expert chronicler of the heavens.
In the end, though – as Jessica begins to guess at the crisis in Caroline’s life caused by her brother’s late marriage, and as her own conflicted life as astronomer, wife and mother reaches a frightening crisis of its own – the play begins to develop a powerful poetic momentum. And that final intensity is reflected both in Gus Monro’s haunting design of star maps and scattered starlight, and in Siobhan Nicholas’s thoughtful and poignant performance as Caroline; the woman who gives up her own life to help her brother in his work, yet finally becomes a passionate astronomer in her own right, caught up in the swirling magic of the universe she has observed through her brother’s great telescopes, and determined to keep on exploring it, to the end.