Oct 26 2014 | By More

★★★★☆    Relevant revival

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Wed 22 Oct – Sat 15 Nov 2014

There is a poetic, spooky resonance to the Lyceum’s revival of Sue Glover’s Bondagers that makes the production compelling.

The bondagers of the title of Glover’s 1991 play are women hired to work on Border farms in the 19th century by ploughmen who had to provide a female worker to gain employment themselves. Their lives are depicted lyrically but unsentimentally, with urgent humanity replacing any hints of nostalgia.

Jayd Johnson. Photo: Drew Farrell

Jayd Johnson (Liza) with Wendy Seager and Pauline Lockhart. Photo: Drew Farrell

Lu Kemp’s direction does great justice to the poetry, drama and humour of the play. The themes of freedom, love, hope and survival are elegantly explored. The questions of exploitation and of what is regarded is ‘women’s work’ remain unfortunately relevant.

The accomplished cast give the play a rhythm that suggests the passage of time, and a realism that means the offstage male characters are evoked as realistically as the onstage female ones.

Cath Whitehead wrings the maximum of pathos out of the ‘daftie’ Tottie, the fifteen-year-old who is used and abused by men. Wendy Seager, meanwhile, is impressive as her mother Sara, whose stoicism hides disappointment.

Nora Wardell, who plays Ellen, the former farm worker who has married the ‘maister’, is full of spiky brio. The humour that hides her more serious concerns finds an echo in Pauline Lockhart’s Maggie, the mother of a seemingly endless brood of children, whose apparent readiness to make throwaway judgements masks a quiet desperation.

humanity and humour

The simple urge to survive, to keep going and to retain humanity and humour in an unforgiving situation, is carried through in the younger workers Liza and Jenny, played by Jayd Johnson and Charlene Boyd in a way that is both fitting for the period and yet totally contemporary.

Cath Whitefield (Tottie) Jayd Johnson, Nora Wardell and Wendy Seager. Photo Drew Farrell

Cath Whitefield (Tottie) with Jayd Johnson, Nora Wardell and Wendy Seager. Photo Drew Farrell

The ensemble feel is appropriate for a story that shows disparate individuals thrown together in a situation over which they have no control, having to join together in back-breaking work in order to carry on living.

Jamie Vartan’s huge, soil-filled set makes this work much easier to imagine. The sheer scale of it suggests the expanse of the countryside yet, with the aid of Simon Wilkinson’s lighting, it is easily broken down into discrete settings. The passage of time is effortlessly evoked, with a definite chill settling over the auditorium at the onset of winter in the second half.

There is some carefully chosen, cross-border music, which also links the past to the present. This adds to a slightly eerie feel that permeates much of the production, suggesting ghosts from the past bleeding into the present.

It has become a truism of the Scottish theatre scene that plays fall through the gaps between small theatres devoted to new writing on the one hand, and the commercial demands of larger venues on the other. Even works that take on the status of ‘modern classic’ seem to find revival exceptionally difficult, so the Lyceum deserves great praise for bringing Bondagers back.

Running time 2 hours 25 mins including interval
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay Street, Edinburgh, EH3 9AX
Saturday 24 Octber – Saturday 15 November 2014
Tue to Sat at 7.30 pm; Weds and Sat at 2.00 pm
Tickets and details from:

Click below to purchase the script or study guide on Amazon.


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