Writer: Sue Glover
Director: Lu Kemp
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
The Lyceum’s latest production really stinks. Entering the stalls, the aroma of six tonnes of mud and earth wafts around, a beautifully sensory introduction to a story which is as earthy and richly fertile as the open field represented on the stage itself. And with Sue Glover’s story engaging both our brain and our heart as well, it is far more than our olfactory system that is worked upon.
Before Glover’s play was first produced in 1991, few were familiar with the agricultural labour system of bondaging that was commonplace on farms of the 19th Century. The last vestiges of a system that may feel close to slavery to modern minds, bondagers were female workers hired by male farmhands as part of a condition of their employment by estate owners. Not wives, nor necessarily with any familial connection, the bondagers were poorly paid, but were kept as part of the farmhand’s contractual obligation to his employer. In Glover’s play, we witness the passing of a year in the lives of six women on a farm in the Scottish borders, and we’re faced with big ideas about women’s rôle in industrial systems, the functions and effects of motherhood, and the nature of social change.
Central to the story is Tottie (Cath Whitefield), a young girl who has what would, in modern terms, be deemed a learning disability. Hired along with her mother-protector, Sara (Wendy Seager), Tottie labours under the care of well-meaning mistress Ellen (Nora Wardell), once a bondager herself who has moved up to “the big hoose” by marrying the landowner. As the year turns, their lives shift under the shadows cast by unseen male characters, while they nurture fantasies of better (or different) lives elsewhere.
The strongest moments of Lu Kemp’s production are the quieter exchanges between characters; the ensemble scenes, when the six actors are cast adrift on Jamie Vartan’s wide open set, are less successful – the vast space of the stage (and auditorium) necessitating a declamatory style of expression, resulting in a passionless monotone. Not all of the voices feel equally at ease with Glover’s Scots-style dialect, which can be tricky to comprehend at times, and is especially hard on the ear when there is an absence of tonal nuance.
The choral sections of a capella chanting feel awkward too, the rhythms of the language not always being fully reflected in the repetitions and musical phrasing. But there is a physicality to the production that rightly conveys the strength and steel of the all-female cast of characters. These are women who match their men in physical grit and resilience, as well as in intellectual capacity – observe the first stirrings of what might become a movement of allied unionism.
Whitefield’s stand-out performance as Tottie captures a beguiling, inquisitive energy, as well as the inevitable vulnerability of being naïve and unwordly, while Seager’s steadfast, knowing Sara bears both dignity and sorrow with a heavy heart. Pauline Lockhart brings a levity to the rôle of Maggie, wife of the farmhand to whom Jayd Johnson’s resolutely unmaternal but otherwise aspirational Liza is bondaged.
There are moments of powerful beauty in the production, with Simon Wilkinson’s lighting creating a range of moods and tones on what might otherwise feel like a barren set. And the production’s final moments offer a stark assertion of the loss of the bondagers’ way of life, of the losses associated with social change, and of what the ghosts that Tottie conjures in the fog truly represent.
Until 15th November