“Nobody thought to save any of the roots,” says Sara towards the end of The Bondagers. She’s one of the six single women who we follow through a year’s hard graft on a 19th century Scottish farm, hired (or “bonded”) to labour in the fields of the great agricultural estates. At the time she’s talking of a medicinal herb uprooted by improvements made to a riverbank, but she could equally be discussing a way of life that, while back-breaking hard, would soon be consigned to the history books.

The Bondagers is no simple social polemic; it is an invocation of a time, a place, and the people who lived and worked in it.

Sue Glover’s script positively crackles with heart and depth; as we get to know these six women, we revel in how they both support and criticise each other in order to maintain their self-respect, and how they take pleasure in the world where they can in a cold, hard world dominated by unseen men–be they the “master” in the Big House, or the equally itinerant ploughmen and other agricultural workers who often try to take advantage of them.

Much of the audience’s attention is justifiably placed on the excellent shoulders of Wendy Seager as the weary Sara and Cath Whitefield as her vulnerable daughter Tottie, whose learning difficulties leads her to being raped by the equally “not all there” ploughman Kello. Yet the others in the cast are worthy of praise too, not least Nora Wardell as Ellen, a Bondager who the previous year successfully made the social leap to become the white-skinned Lady of the House and feels socially dislocated as a result.

Marvellous as Glover’s script is, this new production also provides some excellent theatrical visuals; not least the opening with all six women in long, rough-wool skirts and bonnets, moving towards the audience in a great line across the stage while reciting a spell-like invocation of place names. Jamie Vartan’s simple but effective set, which utilises the full — and surprising — depth of the Lyceum’s stage, along with Simon Wilkinson’s lighting of it, successfully evoke both barn and field as required; a landscape in which these women can seem both huge and vulnerably small. This long-gone world is equally evoked through its soundtrack; not just its distant echoes of crows, but Michael John McCarthy’s use of traditional songs sung by the cast with the heartfelt honesty of the moment.

Importantly, The Bondagers is no simple social polemic; it is an invocation of a time, a place, and the people who lived and worked in it. But we are equally warned of how it is all about to change: “The key to progress is rotation,” Ellen says at one point, almost immediately pointing out that this applies as much to those who work the land as the crops they plant and harvest. It’s perhaps just a shame that, in an overtly writerly conceit, Glover gives Tottie a future vision of when she and the other Bondagers will be “ghosts in the fields”, a future time when “men with machines” will have no need, like them, for a full moon to take in the harvest. A world with no need for them; a world in which they would doubtless not want to live.

Reviews by Paul Fisher Cockburn


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The Blurb

A true classic of modern Scottish Theatre, and a haunting evocation of a lost way of life, Sue Glover’s lyrical play with music and song follows six women land workers as they graft and dance their way through a year on a 19th Century Borders farm.

Every ploughman had to provide a woman (a bondager) to work on the farm. If his wife was too busy with family, he hired a woman to work the fields and lodge in his home. Following these women through the passing of the seasons, we feel the rhythm of the land and the harshness, humour, hope and tragedy of those who worked upon it.

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