‘Stella’ (Traverse: 19-30 Nov ’13)

Stella Image by Richard Gamper

Image courtesy of Richard Gamper

“An elegant design from Gus Munro, and some emotive acting – particularly from an impassioned Kathyrn Pogson – can’t save it from an over-embellished yet under-developed plot”

Even if you’re up to speed on the history of science, you may never have heard of Caroline Herschel.  A woman working in a world dominated by men, she’s eclipsed by her famous brother William; yet even during her own lifetime, she was recognised as a talented astronomer in her own right.  Using that most time-worn of framing devices – a modern-day woman reading a diary – Stella challenges our ignorance, telling the tale of Herschel’s career as she joins her brother in England.  But if you’re expecting a detailed insight into the unique achievements of this female pioneer… you may well be disappointed.

The clue’s in the subtitle, really.  Stella is “a story of women, their men and astronomy”, very definitely in that order.  We hear a lot about Herschel’s relationship with her brother, whose marriage and fatherhood late in life sets the scene for some classic familial discord, but there’s regrettably little assessment of what she truly contributed to her field of study.  The script skips oddly quickly over her independent discoveries, essentially casting her as a diligent but put-upon helper – and while the notes on the back of the programme go some way towards justifying that choice, the play itself could do much more to explain the nuances and contradictions of her role.

On the plus side, both script and actors convey a fine sense of the mysteries of the cosmos, not least the incomprehensible wonderment surrounding the Herschels’ surprise discovery of the planet Uranus.  Some gentle humour works well, and at the heart of the plot there’s an excellent hook – a black hole of torn-out pages from Caroline’s meticulous diary.  But the script never quite sells that mystery, instead choosing to plod chronologically onwards, always displaying perfect confidence that matters will be revealed in time.

Perhaps because the main storyline’s so conspicuously short on drama, the production adds a second string: a neat parallel between the violence of the Arab Spring and the burning of the ancient Great Library of Alexandria.  It’s rounded out by some telling quotations from the martyred fourth-century female philosopher Hypatia, which serve well to keep things thematically complete.  There’s enough in that clever concept to support a whole separate play, but here it feels like an afterthought – especially since its emotionally-wrought conclusion is so strikingly different to the rest of the tone.

Stella is a missed opportunity.  Rather than exploring what’s distinctive in Herschel’s story, it diverts all too frequently onto expository sidelines, or less-than-subtle parallels with the present day.  An elegant design from Gus Munro, and some emotive acting – particularly from an impassioned Kathyrn Pogson – can’t save it from an over-embellished yet under-developed plot.

Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 19 November)