This lyrical and beautiful play made 'townie' theatre audiences feel the rhythm of the land. The bondagers danced and grafted their way through a mid-19th century farming year. They held us spellbound with the harshness, humour, hope and tragedy of their lives.
Traverse Theatre Company at the Tramway, Glasgow, and then the Traverse, Edinburgh, in May 1991.
Liza – Hilary MacLean
Maggie – Anne Lacey
Sara – Ann-Louise Ross
Tottie – Myra McFadyen
Ellen – Rosaleen Pelan
Jenny/Bella – Eve Keepax
When the Traverse revived the play in 1993, Kathryn Howden played Tottie and the role of Maggie was taken by Carol Ann Crawford.
'I didn’t mean to write it in Scots at all … But the words just came. It certainly isn't authentic Scots like, say, Hector MacMillan. That's not really what I'm interested in: I feel it can get in the way of the drama. "Bondagers" isn't a dictionary, and it isn't a documentary. It's a theatrical experience.'
– Sue Glover 'Theatre Scotland' (no.6, p.xxx).
The story covers the lives of the bondagers – female agricultural labourers – over a working year on a Borders farm.
At the Hiring Fairs, a male worker was hired on condition that he had a female worker with him. If there was no wife or other relative there – or able – to fill the role, he had to hire a woman himself, usually at the Hiring Fair. She was then his responsibility to house, feed and pay a minimal wage to for the coming year.
There are no male characters in the play, but inevitably their off-stage lives affect the women. Underscored by the toil, humour and rhythm of farm life is a tale of seduction, death and blame.
And every character is gnawed at by great uncertainty about the future.
'Redd up the stables, muck out the byre, plant the tatties, howk the tatties, clamp the tatties. Single the neeps, shaw the neeps, mangle the neeps, cart the neeps. Shear, stook, striddle, stack. Wonen's work.'
'Bondagers' is a profound and lyrical examination of our relationship to the land, and with each other.
What is often forgotten is that the play is more than a haunting evocation of a lost way of life. It is also a warning about the misuse of land.
Interesting to note that John Tiffany was a Trainee Director on the 1995 production. You could argue that the choreography and use of song in 'Bondagers' has echoes in Tiffany's use of chorus and movement in National Theatre of Scotland productions such as 'Black Watch' and 'Be Near Me'.
'It is, in my opinion, one of the finest plays of the modern Scottish theatre, and perhaps only 'Sunset Song' can match its simple grandeur and lyrical exposition of rural life and character. We have seen so many plays about shipyards and factories, spoken in gutter guttural, that we tend to forget that farming has always been our major industry and the speech of country folk the most beautiful in our language.
'There is not a wheeple of nostalgia in it for a lost way of life, not a cringe of self-pity for hardship endured. It is raw and rough, warm and tender, funny enough to make your heart dance and moving enough to steal it away. There is something of Zola in it, and Thomas Hardy, and Breughel or millet might have painted the six bonneted women as they strut the earth like hoodie-craws. See it if you can.'
– W Gordon Smith, 'Scotland on Sunday'.
'Without sentimentality or nostalgia, Ian Brown’s handsome, substantial production evokes a way of life whose beauty lay in its attunement to the earth. The unassailable contradiction at the heart of Glover's play is that despite the hardships and injustices of the bondagers’ lot, their lives had a fitness, an unconscious relevance which we can only dream of.'
– Julie Morrice, 'Scotland on Sunday'.
© National Library of Scotland 2010