The Scotsman Sessions #409: Danielle Jam and Rori Hawthorn

Welcome to the Scotsman Sessions, a series of short video performances from artists all around the country introduced by our critics. This week, Danielle Jam and Rori Hawthorn perform a scene from the new Dundee Rep and Lyceum Theatre co-production of Sunset Song

This summer’s large-scale touring production of Sunset Song – in a stage version by Morna Young, co-produced by Dundee Rep and the Lyceum Theatre – is an enthralling piece of total theatre, full of spectacular design, lighting and movement, and brilliantly co-ordinated music and sound.

Yet while director Finn den Hertog and the company use all the resources of theatre to tell Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic story of a young woman, Chris Guthrie, growing up in the Mearns of north-east Scotland before and during the First World War, the heart of the story still lies – as in any retelling of Sunset Song – in the characters of Chris and her troubled parents, and the language or languages they speak.

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And it’s those twin central strengths of the story that feature in this Scotsman Session, specially recorded by Danielle Jam, who plays Chris in the production, and Rori Hawthorn, who plays her mother, Jean. The session captures one of the most famous moments of the novel, in which Chris puts into words the idea that the two languages she speaks – the mighty Doric Scots of the farm and family, and the English she learns at school – embody two different Chrisses who “fought for her heart, and tormented her”; the one clever, rational, ambitious to go to college and become a teacher, the other so bound to the hard, beautiful and intensely physical life of the land that she can barely imagine leaving it.

Rori Hawthorn (left) and Danielle JamRori Hawthorn (left) and Danielle Jam
Rori Hawthorn (left) and Danielle Jam

In this extract, we see how Chris’s mother, Jean fears that her passion for reading and studying will rob her of the intense joy of that close connection to the natural world and its seasons, and the power of the old language that goes with it; and it’s significant that both Jam and Hawthorn grew up hearing the rhythms of north-eastern Scots in their daily lives. Jam grew up in Aberdeen, while Hawthorn lived in Aberdeenshire before her family moved to the west coast, where she quickly acquired the skills as a folk fiddler and Gaelic singer that still form an important part of her work today.

“Grassic Gibbons’s language is just so physical, so poetic, and so timeless,” says Hawthorn, “and the characters are all so complex and well-rounded and opinionated – it’s wonderful to play them. Jean Guthrie is a woman who cannot read or write; but she has so much strength and intelligence. There’s nothing simple or predictable about her; or about her husband John, whose brutality leads to such tragedy – yet still he encourages Chris to learn and study, and to strive for a better life.”

“Some of the detail of Grassic Gibbon’s language is stunning,” adds Jam. “And for me, it was just a huge pleasure to bring this show back home to Aberdeen, and to hear the special response of the north-eastern audience to hearing that wonderful language on stage. The show has had a great reception everywhere. But the response in Aberdeen was so quick, so completely aware of that language; and to hear an audience reacting so strongly to this story, almost a century after it was written – that is something special.”

Sunset Song is at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 16-18 May, and the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, 28 May until 8 June

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