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Sue Glover and Liz Carruthers - The Straw Chair

When Sue Glover's play, The Straw Chair, first appeared at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 1988, it's eighteenth century setting and focus on volatile female characters was in stark contrast to a prevailing trend of gritty realism. The play's study of Lady Grange, exiled from Edinburgh to a barren St Kilda by her philandering husband, was a hit nevertheless, and regarded by many as a contemporary classic.

It is curious therefore, that Liz Carruthers' revival of the play which embarks on an extensive Scottish tour this week, is the first time Glover's play will have been seen in Scotland in a full production for twenty-seven years.

“I never pushed for it,” says Glover today. “The Traverse used to say to me that if only I wrote about housing estates and drugs they could market me better, but I wasn't interested in that, and a lot of bigger theatres didn't think it suitable. The play wasn't published until later either, and after about five years or so, when things get to a certain age they're considered too old to be revived, especially for a play which I saw as a costume drama.”

Glover's Lady Grange is based on the real life figure of Rachel Chiesley, who, on squaring up to her husband James Erskine's various indiscretions in Edinburgh with unabashed abandon, was subsequently kidnapped by him and banished to various secluded islands. Into Lady Grange's unfettered domain comes newly-weds Isabel and her minister husband Aneas, determined to spread the gospel to what they see as untamed Northerners. It is Lady Grange, however, who opens up Isabel's eyes to other possibilities.

“I had a Gaelic neighbour,” Glover says of the play's background, “who was brought up on Mull and who told me about Rachel and suggested to me that I write a play about her. Then I read about her, and I thought, oh, boy, yes.

“The thing that really attracted me to her was a tiny wee article in a church magazine, and it said that Lord Grange couldn't legally divorce Rachel, so he gave her £200 and stuck her in Leith. She was a drunk, and used to walk up to the Royal Mile and stand outside her husband's house in Niddrie Wynd and shout at all of his friends in their sedan chairs. She was a wronged woman, but he was a vile hypocrite, and I just thought, oh, yeah!”

The idea to finally revive The Straw Chair was first hatched after Carruthers directed a short play by Glover, Bear on A Chain, at Oran Mor as part of the venue's A Play, A Pie and A Pint seasons of lunchtime theatre. Having stepped into the production at the last minute, Carruthers hit it off with Glover, and went to a reading of The Straw Chair at The Visitors, a series of presentations of neglected twentieth century Scottish plays curated by writer Nicola McCartney at the CCA in Glasgow.

“I didn't see the original production,” says Carruthers, “but at the time I was learning Gaelic, and had to do a project, which I decided to do on Lady Grange, so to see such an extraordinary play based on her was great, and I knew then that I wanted to do it.”

That was five years ago, since when there have been a couple of false starts, with Carruthers and Glover teaming up to form their own company, Hirtle, who will be co-producing the play with Borderline.

Glover is on something of a roll just now in terms of seeing revivals of her work, with Borderline's production of The Straw Chair following Lu Kemp's revival of her 1991 play, Bondagers, at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh in 2014.

“I think Sue has been under-valued as a writer,” says Carruthers, who describes The Straw Chair as Glover's masterpiece, “and you wonder if that is because she's a woman and because she's older. When I started out it seemed like there were very few women writers and directors, but you look around now and it seems like there's more women doing it than men. It's still about the youth in many ways, so I think it's quite good that two older women like us can start our own company.”

In terms of how women are perceived beyond the world of the play, not much has changed according to Carruthers.

“The play's very much about hypocrisy,” she says, “both of the church and of Edinburgh society, and how so-called respectable society like to sweep people like Lady Grange under the carpet and pretend they don't exist, It's about how if a woman steps out of line society won't tolerate it, and society today still won't stand for it. If a woman gets drunk she's thought far worse of than a man, and there's this continuing disapproval of women who don't stay in their place. I think we're living through a really misogynist era at the moment, and so much of that comes through in the play.

“It's a vivid piece. There's lots of humour in it. Lady Grange didn't follow social conventions and is obsessed with sex, so it's very rude and very funny, but I hope as well as finding it funny that people will be angered by what happens in the play. It's not preserved in aspic, that's for sure. It's as pertinent now as it was all those years ago.”

For Glover too, Lady Grange remains a formidable figure.

”One or two people regard her as a poor victim,” Glover says, “which on one level of course she is, but I remember taking my Gaelic neighbour to see the play, and she was quite taken aback by seeing this angry mad woman. I think she was expecting something gentler.”

The Straw Chair, Sabhal Nor Ostaig, Sleat, April 1; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, April 3; Birnam Arts Centre, April 4; Ardross Community Hall, April 7, touring until May.
www.borderlinetheatre.co.uk
 
The Herald, March 31st 2015
 
ends

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