Bondagers Royal Lyceum Theatre

The first thing that struck me on entering the auditorium was how vast the stage looked. The set uses every inch of space to amazing effect – stretching out in front of us is a huge field, complete with earth and straw, agricultural implements and the dark and cold mists of a stark winter morning. The set design is amazing and so realistic we feel we are part of the landscape. What a contrast to the first time I saw Bondagers in the cramped confines of the original Traverse Theatre many years ago. Not to say that the original version was inferior in any way, far from it, just that this production gives us a sensory experience both visually and olfactory as we can literally smell the farmyard smells (turnips, not dung – don’t worry!)

Bondagers tells the story of the women of 19th century rural Scotland, specifically the Borders and East Lothian. These women were hired at annual fairs to work for male farmworkers or “hinds”. It was a hard life with little security and low wages and scant protection against sexual and economic exploitation. The life of the wives of the hinds was no less tough – coping with a growing brood of children in cramped accommodation which they must share with their bondager. There is no privacy and, although the bonds between the women are strong, tensions inevitably develop and overflow.

Jenny, Liza, Sara and her daughter Tottie are the bondagers. Tottie is what in those days would have been called a simple girl, innocent and childlike. She is taken advantage of by one of the farmworkers, Kello, which sets in motion a tragic chain of events. Maggie is the sharp tongued hind’s wife who is resentful and jealous of Liza who she is convinced is bedding her husband. Ellen is an ex-bondager who has struck it lucky by catching the eye of the “maister” and marrying him. But not even Ellen is immune from the harshness of the system as she and her husband are in their turn in thrall to the landowner. They all have their dreams to sustain them – to have a nice house, to emigrate to Canada, to have a husband and baby but fate and circumstances are against them.

This is a fine play, a modern classic of Scottish literature with a strong storyline, an insight into our history and heritage as well as a wonderful blend of drama and music. There are moments which will linger long in the memory – the ghostly figures of the women emerging from the gloom as they work their backbreaking way up the dreels and the row of lights moving high above the stage which represent the coming threat of mechanisation are but two. This is a story of the old ways and the coming of the new but also of universal themes of love and comradeship and survival. Director Lu Kemp, the actors and the team at the Lyceum have done it proud with this production – it is a must see.

Irene Brownlee