Before Sue Glover wrote Bondagers, books on the subject of female farm
workers in the nineteenth century seemed to be pretty thin on the
ground. Once Glover's play charting six women's travails through the
seasons became a hit in Ian Brown's original production for the
Traverse Theatre in 1991, however, everything changed. The play's
emotional landscape and lyrical largesse tapped into something that
audiences lapped up, and Brown's production was revived for bigger
theatres and toured to Canada. Suddenly there seemed to be a welter of
literature on the subject, while the play itself was recently named as
one of the twelve key Scottish plays written between 1970 and 2010.
Twenty-three years on since its premiere, and more than a decade since
it was last produced on home soil, Bondagers comes home to roost in Lu
Kemp's new production at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. Even
with such an extended absence, Glover remains close to the play.
“It's difficult to get away from it,” she says on a lunchtime sojourn
into Edinburgh from her Fife home. “It's always there. There have been
productions abroad, you get emails from students doing design, or
school-teachers doing it with their kids, so it becomes part of you.
All your plays are part of you.”
The roots of Bondagers date back to Glover being told about the history
of women who were exploited as cheap labour while trying to keep body,
soul and family together. Having never heard of them, she looked into
it, and originally planned to write the play as a two-hander before it
blossomed into something bigger.
“Ian Brown said to me that I'd given him a very difficult play to
direct,” Glover remembers. “Apparently it's written in a lot of
different styles, but they all seem to fit together to me, and I don't
want to analyse or think about that too much, but I think it was just
the landscape that started it, and it's very dangerous to begin with a
landscape. It's usually a character or something of the story or an
incident, but there wasn't anything except that I kept seeing these
misty fields. A forty or fifty acre field sounds enormous, and it was
enormous then, although it's nothing now. I was on a car and a train in
Poland recently, going past these vast swathes of fields that could
have been somewhere in America, but these fields were new at that time.
“I believe they tried growing trees around the edges of the fields, and
then realised that it wasn't a good idea, partly because it would keep
the sun off the fields. I loved all that stuff. I always have. Even as
a kid I'd see places being concreted over, and wonder how we'd be able
to grow our food.”
Before Bondagers, there seemed to be few contemporary plays being
written in Scotland with rural settings. Whether it was coincidence or
there was something in the air, Glover's play seemed to open the door
on other works that moved beyond the inner-city. Alastair Cording's
stage adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbons' novel, Sunset Song, appeared
the same year as Bondagers, while original works such as David
Harrower's still startling Knives In Hens was an even bigger breath of
fresh air. At one point, it seemed like the majority of new plays being
produced by the Traverse were rural-based, including Glover's own play,
Shetland Saga. This was something brought home by the new writing
theatre's once annual Highland tour.
“I got the impression that if I'd been writing about housing estates or
factories or drugs, some theatres might have been much more interested
in my work,” Glover says. “All of my theatre plays are set on beaches
or islands or the countryside, and audiences have always been very
happy about that. Theatre admin departments weren't, certainly not in
the way they are now.”
One of Glover's bête noirs is classical plays having some kind of
concept imposed on them.
“They keep on trying to see the relevance of everything,” she says,
“but audiences will get the relevance of it. I don't want to see
Shakespeare done in blazers with people carrying tennis rackets.
Audiences aren't so dim that they can't see what a play is about.”
Kemp's revival of Bondagers for the Royal Lyceum heralds a mini
renaissance of Glover's work. A new production by Borderline Theatre
Company of The Straw Chair, first seen at the Traverse in 1988, is
scheduled for 2015. Like Bondagers, The Straw Chair looks to history
for inspiration, and looks at what happens when an Edinburgh minister
and his wife arrive on eighteenth century St Kilda.
“It's set in the past,” says Glover of the play she calls her favourite
work, “but really it's a play about marriage. It's really exciting,
because they're going to open it in Orkney.”
Glover's most recent full-length stage play was Marilyn, which imagined
a meeting between Marilyn Monroe and Simone Signoret in a hotel room,
and which was seen at the Citizens Theatre in 2011. Beyond that, Glover
currently has two short plays on the go. The first is based around a
couple living with lions, while the second is about an older couple
facing up to their own mortality.
As with Bondagers, however, Glover is unwilling to impose a theme on
her new works lest it get in the way of writing it.
“I found out what Bondagers is about while I was writing it,” she says.
“It's about losing or spoiling the land. Young people are slightly
horrified by the sexual politics in the play, because they're seeing it
through modern eyes, but the energy of these women was amazing.”
Bondagers, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, October 22-November 15.
Sue Glover – A life in writing
Sue Glover was born in Edinburgh and lives in the East Neuk of Fife.
She has written for theatre television and radio.
The Seal Wife – Based on the legend of the selkies – seals who take
human form and live on the land – Glover reinvented the myth for a
fishing community in 1980 at the Little Lyceum in Edinburgh.
The Straw Chair – First presented at the Traverse Theatre in 1988, this
charts the travails of an Edinburgh minister and his wife when they
move to St Kilda. A hit at the time, The Straw Chair looks set to be
revived by Borderline Theatre Company in 2015.
Bondagers – Glover's best known play was first presented by the
Traverse in 1991, when it opened at Tramway in Glasgow. Ian Brown's
production was subsequently remounted three times, and toured to Canada.
Sacred Hearts – This tale of five prostitutes who occupy the local
church in protest at their working conditions was based on a real life
prostitutes strike in 1975, and was presented by Communicado Theatre
company in 1994.
Shetland Saga – Philip Howard directed Glover's tale of what happens to
a group of Bulgarian sailors who become stranded in Shetland at the
Traverse Theatre in 2000.
Marilyn – Howard again directed Glover's work in this reimagining of a
meeting between Marilyn Monroe and Simone Signoret, who find themselves
staying at the same hotel.
The Herald, October 21st 2014