Danielle Jam on playing Chris Guthrie in Sunset Song: ‘It makes me excited seeing her story being told at this time’

Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song may have been voted Scotland’s favourite novel, but Danielle Jam isn’t daunted by the prospect of playing its much-loved heroine, she tells Mark Fisher

In 2016, BBC Scotland conducted a poll to determine Scotland’s favourite novel. The winner beat some formidable competition, coming in ahead of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, Lanark by Alasdair Gray and The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. It was Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, the beguiling story of Chris Guthrie, daughter of Kincardineshire farmers, coming of age in a rapidly changing nation around the years of the First World War.

When so many people love the 1932 novel so deeply, you would expect anyone bringing it to the stage to feel a weight of responsibility. But Danielle Jam is undaunted. Playing Chris Guthrie in a co-production between Dundee Rep and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum, she has freed herself by making a shrewd observation.

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“Whenever I told people I was doing it, they would go, ‘The book, the book, the book, my favourite book, I love the book,’” she says. “Everyone has so many positive things to say about it. But it was always different things they loved.”

She reasons that when the story appeals on so many levels and in different ways to different people, audiences are bound to take what they need from the adaptation. “Personally, I would be really excited just to see the story again,” she says. “We’re pulling the things from the book that we’re inspired by and that can only heighten those aspects that people love.”

The show, which tours to Aberdeen, Inverness and Edinburgh after its opening run at Dundee Rep, is unusual in the way it has been put together. All the key artistic players have been involved from the start. Director Finn den Hertog, playwright Morna Young and composer Finn Anderson are credited as co-conceivers and built the show with Jam in mind.

“The more theatre moves towards co-creation amongst a team, the better,” says Den Hertog. “The production is a conversation between all of the team making it.”

The Elgin-born Young has leant into the Scots language, the better to root it in the Mearns landscape. Dundee-born Anderson, who most recently collaborated with Young on The Snow Queen at the Royal Lyceum, has composed a modern folk score that also evokes place.

Danielle Jam PIC: Alastair MoreDanielle Jam PIC: Alastair More
Danielle Jam PIC: Alastair More

“Grassic Gibbon calls the main body of the book “The Song”, and there’s the Prelude and the Epilude,” says Den Hertog. “There’s a very musical quality to our version and music gives it a different language.”

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As an actor, Den Hertog appeared twice in versions of Sunset Song. He played Will, Chris Guthrie’s brother, in a stage revival by the late Kenny Ireland in 2008, and Ewan Tavendale in a BBC Radio 4 version the following year. Does that mean the new production is unfinished business?

Not exactly, says the director: “I’d read the book at school and, in the spirit of all teenagers, had been reluctant reading it. Then I came back to it as a piece of drama. I didn’t re-read it until I started looking around for things from the Scottish canon to stage. I wouldn’t say it was unfinished business but more looking at it with fresh eyes.”

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Keen to welcome all audiences, he is keeping in mind fans of the book as well as newcomers. He is particularly keen to cater to a third category: “There are those people who think they know the story from having seen previous theatre productions or the 1970s television series or the Terence Davies film and not quite remembered what’s in it. I was one of those people. I was someone who thought they knew the book, went back to it and went, ‘Oh my gosh! This is incredible.’ It is such a rich piece of writing.”

“I love the detailed descriptions of the land,” agrees Jam whose previous roles include an independent-minded Mina in Morna Pearson’s Dracula: Mina’s Reckoning and a resourceful Lady Ellen in Rona Munro’s James IV: Queen of the Fight. “I would read a description and make myself go back and re-read it because it is so specific. The land is this huge presence in the novel.”

That too is true of the production – not in a literal sense, but theatrically. “The land is a character,” says Den Hertog. “It is a choric land. Where you find poetry in cinema or novels is in these descriptions of the land. Where you find poetry in theatre is through movement and music. You can’t do sweeping longshots of beautiful fields or long descriptive passages, but you can evoke something through the storytelling methods I love to use. From the very start, I was interested in how the bodies on the stage could represent the land. The place Chris Guthrie is in is bearing witness to her life.”

In its focus on a female protagonist in an era of profound social change, Sunset Song continues to speak eloquently more than 90 years after its publication. “It makes me excited seeing her story being told at this time,” says Jam. “It’s about what Chris wants to do and what she can’t do because of the choices that are put on her. These are important stories to tell and I’ll never get tired of knowing where a country has come from, historically. Generational trauma that has been passed down is core to the story. Looking back to the Great War, we keep repeating the same things and not until you reflect on that can you gain insight from it.”

Sunset Song is at Dundee Rep from 13 April until 2 May, and touring until 8 June.