IT’S 23 years since Sue Glover’s Bondagers first took to the stage, in Ian Brown’s unforgettable world premiere production for the Traverse: six women in long, rough-wool skirts and bonnets moving in a great line across the stage, as they bend and stretch to the back-breaking work of an agricultural labourer in the Scottish Borders, 120 years ago.
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Yet in the quarter-century since this play was first conceived, Glover’s drama has lost none of its energy or timeliness. And if Lu Kemp’s fine new production for the Royal Lyceum perhaps never quite achieves the heart-stopping choreographic beauty of that first production, if anything it leads us even deeper into the human and political heart of a play which shows us a group of single women tied to an ancient tradition of bonded labour, yet still in many ways far from powerless.
Set on a wide, circular stage shaped by designer Jamie Vartan to evoke both the big barns in which the women sometimes worked, and also the open spaces of the fields, Kemp’s production is lifted by Michael John McCarthy’s score – based on traditional songs sung in raw and poignant style by the women – and by some fine, misty lighting from Simon Wilkinson. The core of the drama, though, lies in the richness of Glover’s script, and in the wonderful performances it draws from Kemp’s six-strong female ensemble, led by a magnificent Wendy Seager as ageing farm-worker Sara, and Cath Whitefield as her vulnerable daughter Tottie. In essence, Bondagers is the story of a year in these women’s lives, and of poor Tottie’s rape by the handsome ploughman Kello – the bondagers are at constant risk from the cruel patriarchal attitudes of a society that bears down hard on “fallen women”.
The greatness of Glover’s play, though, lies in its refusal to become a straightforward piece of negative social polemic. Her bondagers support one another fiercely in their efforts to maintain their self-respect, their sense of humour, their right to a little pleasure and the carefully-nurtured education and literacy that keeps them connected to sons and brothers in far-away Canada.
And when Tottie, up in the lang syne rigs, sees her future vision of “men with machines, and fields without people”, we are forced to recognise the great losses of our recent history, as well as the gains; the shift from a life that was desperately hard but profoundly sustainable, to one that is superficially easier, yet lived on a knife-edge of economic and environmental insecurity which the bondagers could barely have imagined, and would not have wished to live to see.
Seen on 25.10.14