By Isabella Fraser
The story of a young girl, Chris Guthrie, growing up in a rural farming community in the North East of Scotland of pre and post WW1, Sunset Song is a timely reminder of the impact war and a changing world had on agricultural communities in Scotland. Alastair Cording’s adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic novel uses Gibbon’s evocative language to great effect. The lyrical dialect flows through this play, capturing the character and spirit of the people of the Howe of the Mearns.
Jane Bee Brown’s set is sparse and the colour of earth, which works as a metaphor for this harsh but fertile land. Every inch of the set is used by director Julie Ellen to picture the Kinraddie lands, thus allowing the cast to move seamlessly between scenes and character changes. The cast is on the stage for the majority of the time, adding to the feeling of this claustrophobic community where no-one can hide; there are no secrets here.
This production finds its power in its ensemble and the poetry of the North East dialect which the majority of the cast manages to capture. Alan McHugh in particular is a fierce and complex John Guthrie, giving depth to the struggle that wages within him: the need for control but also unable to stop the passion that ultimately damages his family. His is a world that destroys, a correlation to WW1 that is about to change lives. Rebecca Elise as Chris Guthrie, his daughter, comes across as strangely emotionless, possibly due to a vocal problem, which lessens the impact of key points in the storyline.
Guiding the ebb and flow of the piece are the bothy songs, accompanied by live music, all of which are performed by various members of the cast. Underscoring the changing emotions of the piece, the music is at times poignant, at other times toe-tapping and feisty. Scotland has a rich history of music; by using traditional music to link scenes and mood changes, musical director Morna Young reminds us that underneath the gruff exterior of traditional working Scots lie sentimental, passionate hearts.
The final minutes of the play are stirring: Fraser Sivewright gives a rousing speech as Colquhoun the minister paying tribute to the fallen of WW1, indicating the people’s responsibility for the future. A simply staged address to the audience, accompanied by the pipes, this ending reminds us of the freedoms that have been fought for.
Sunset Song runs until Saturday 11 October at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh at 7.30pm (additional matinee on Saturday at 2.30pm) and then on tour.