“a fertile, sure-yield production “
First performed by the Traverse Theatre Company at the Tramway, Glasgow, and then the Traverse, Edinburgh, in May 1991. Listed by the National Library of Scotland as one of the 12 key Scottish plays of the past forty years.
There is the straight open road and there is the wide open field. We are likely, through pig-ignorance, to love the first and disregard the second. However, Sue Glover’s Bondagers will change your mind, and if it doesn’t, you’re past saving. For this bonneted, bonny, holy play almost makes the invisible visible. Almost, for there are small molehills of socio-economics and human geography to flatten first.
In his peerless survey of theatrical landscapes, Peter Brook ends chapter 2 of The Empty Space with this question: ‘Where should we look for [holy theatre]? In the clouds or on the ground?’ You can smell the answer in Lu Kemp’s fertile, sure-yield production. An earthy top dressing covers the Lyceum stage, and when it’s hoed, watered or shovelled, you could be in the fields alongside the A697, just past Greenlaw. In Bondagers, which is part keepsake, part platform, this Berwickshire acreage matters hugely.
For most of us, farmland is now remote, somehow indistinguishable territory. Once upon a time, really not so long ago, over the Lammermuir hills a married ploughman (a hind) was bound to provide a woman (a bondager) to also work on the farm. She might be his wife, but not when there were infant children to raise. By the 1890’s, a good master would have paid his bondager ten pence a day. Women’s work for women’s pay was still holding firm.
You’d have to split the Lyceum to set Bondagers in the round, but the creative team gets close to the vision thing, whose horizon(s) stretch way beyond the box beds in the cottage row, not that you see them anyway. There are no doors, no flats, and no fly-on-the-wall positions, as the scenery is a wide semi-circle of tan planking, thin and loosely joined, with the mist floating beneath it. The sights and sounds of this piece are filmic but solidity is vested in the spirits of six women. When fifteen year old Tottie calls out to her father in Saskatchewan the Canadian prairie seems as close as the Cheviots. Sara, the sturdy elder, leaves no room for doubt or longing, and Ellen, once bound over but now the tenant farmer’s young wife, is still bold and outspoken. Meanwhile, plainly and keenly, there are the folk songs: by turns affecting, burdened or bawdy, they keep time and period in step. Those warm, singing hearts lie under bulky wraps that are a triumph of research and costuming by the Wardrobe department. Additionally, the movement director, Ian Spink, deserves applause in his own right. From hiring to flitting the year round weather seems autumnal and chill. When the light does come, right at the end, the advancing glaring beams are of a different nature altogether.
In this rare atmosphere and with their own language a’ aboot them, the six bondagers share their lives. Sara (a fabulous Wendy Seagar) is the embodiment of moral dignity; good wife Maggie (Pauline Lockhart) scuttles undiminished from bairn to crib to table; Liza (Jayd Johnson) and Jenny (Charlene Boyd) chop neeps by day and gaze for lovers in their broken mirror by night. Innocent, wilder, emblematic Tottie (Cath Whitefield) strays outside the fold and suffers grievous harm. Mistress Ellen (Nora Waddell) brings knowledge of farm economy and crop rotation alongside her desire for a baby.
This is substantial and enthralling theatre by director Kemp and designer Jamie Vartan and yet its make-believe is vulnerable. I’d call Bondagers rhapsodic but there’s dissonance. A working girl can still be seduced into marriage by the promise of a clock, a dresser and a bed. Worse, there are bogeymen around: a sheriff who orders an arrest and a marquess who raises the rent. That brief combination is enough to silence the women well before the badass harvester turns off into the fields.
Still, the road’s clear to Coldstream and you can see for miles. Enjoy the view and love Bondagers.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 28 October)
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