Sue Glover’s haunting tale of female land workers on a nineteenth century farm on the Scottish borders has certainly made its mark in the arena of modern Theatre, so much so that it was brought back three times to The Traverse in Edinburgh, who later took it to London and Canada. I’ll admit I was curious, if slightly apprehensive to see how Glover and director Lu Kemp would tackle the bleak working conditions of those chained both to the land and their masters but my fears soon proved unfounded.
The real triumph of Bondagers is the decision to foreground the landscape, allowing the audience to become immersed by it so that they might understand its secrets. To fully capture the lay of the land and the temperamental nature of the Scottish climate, the importance of effective set and lighting design cannot be underestimated and Jamie Vartan and Simon Wilkinson should be credited here for astonishing achievements in both. The play also shows the innate connection between humans and their environment, a forgotten bond in these days of rapid industrial and technological expansion.
The story of these six women (stunningly portrayed by a stellar cast) is of course laced with humanity and the joy and pain therein but the balance of the physical and the metaphysical is at the root of what makes Bondagers such a success. At times characters pass in and out of the darkness like spectres, delivering powerful vignettes which although integral to the plot seem more like a commentary on a way of life which seems otherworldly yet oddly recognisable. Nora Wardell is particularly strong in these scenes as the former bondager who finds her way out through marriage yet cannot fully integrate into a life where all she is required to do is make tea and bear children – her eventual realisation that she is in fact barren is heartbreaking.
A prevailing theme throughout the play as whole is the decimation of youth and innocence, whether seen through the eyes of Tottie, who frequently imitates the actions of her more worldly wise friends with devastating consequences or Liza, who witnesses the domestic strife as her mistress endures and resolves to avoid motherhood at all cost. Just as the drama itself unveils a moment frozen in time, so too are its characters bound to the stage, their chance for growth and renewal stunted by the devastating realisation that precious little else exists for them outside of a life of toil and struggle. The tragedy of the piece, however, is tempered with scenes of joy and downright playfulness most fully realised at the end of the first act which sees the women stomp and sway at a dance which later proves to be a pivotal event in the drama.
A true work of Art, Bondagers opens up the history book and allows its events to bubble forth so that they might penetrate our hearts and minds.
Bondagers will run from now until the 15th of November at the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh.