The world had yet to close down when Imogen Stirling began writing Love The Sinner in 2019. By the time she finished her epic poetic take on the seven deadly sins, any chance of performing it were thwarted by assorted pandemic induced lockdowns. When Stirling brings it to Edinburgh’s Hidden Door festival this month, however, her stripped back rendition of a forthcoming full theatrical production - both created with composer and fellow performer Sarah Carton, who performs a live electronic accompaniment - can’t help but echo recent times.
As the latest link in a chain of poetic and dramatic interpretations that date from Dante through to Chaucer, Brecht and beyond, Stirling’s take on the seven deadly sins drags the action into a big city urban environment that sounds not unlike Glasgow. Here her seven protagonists live in fractured isolation, as a biblical rain pours onto the streets outside.
“The concept of the seven deadly sins has always fascinated me,” says Stirling, “and I quite liked working with what is I suppose quite a stereotyped framework. When you have some sort of restrictive thing like that in place, I find that encourages you to be more creative, because you're trying to disrupt stereotypes from the beginning. You're trying to bring your own flair to something that's quite familiar.
“I've always been interested as well in taking the ancient and the modern and squashing them together and seeing what comes out. I think there's something nice about showing that the same sort of problems and anxieties that exist today have always existed and always will exist.”
Putting this in a broader narrative context rather than first person confessional is key to Stirling’s thinking behind Love The Sinner.
“Spoken word is often very, very personal,” she says. “People are always talking about their own experiences. I thought it would be nice subverting that, playing much more with the theatricality of character, and, rather than focusing on one person’s experience, having the seven figures that you can play with. As soon as I started experimenting with that, I felt like there was real substance to it, so I just pushed on to see what it could become, and the bigger narrative built out from there.”
With Stirling’s characters embodying assorted twenty-first century anxieties, an unlikely heroine of the piece comes in the figure of Sloth. Amongst the rage and violence that erupts elsewhere, her presence provides a purging of sorts.
“I think there was a reason that Sloth came out like that,” says Stirling, “because there we were during the pandemic, trapped in our lethargy and our sense of hopelessness and inaction, and I thought there was something so nice about empowering her. I didn't want it to become a COVID story by any means, but undoubtedly writing it during that time in isolation, it really helped to live the experience of what the characters are going through.”
Stirling’s collaboration with Carton was also conducted under lockdown.
“Working with Sarah has been a unique creative process,” Stirling affirms. “Due to her being based in London, our collaboration and her composition happened entirely remotely. Composing for spoken word is no mean feat, and the powerful, nuanced score Sarah has created is testament to her skill and sensitivity as an artist and storyteller.”
Love The Sinner is Stirling’s second full-length show, following #Hypocrisy, which she performed on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Prague Fringe. This came after decamping from North Berwick to Glasgow, where she studied English and Drama while undoubtedly lapping up the big city vibes that fuel her work.
Beyond Hidden Door, Stirling will be touring Love The Sinner around the UK festival circuit. She has also started a new job as Artistic Development Coordinator at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. This will see her enabling artists to try out work in initiatives similar to those she came through. One of these was Everyone is Creative, set up by Vanishing Point Theatre Company, who look set to support Love The Sinner further.
In the meantime, the Hidden Door performance of Love The Sinner marks Stirling and Carton’s first live appearance together.
“It's going to be very different,” says Stirling. “That makes it very exciting. I cannot wait.”
Hidden Door, Old Royal High School, Edinburgh, June 17, 7.45pm.
The List, June 2022