Royal Lyceum Theatre
Until 15th November
Sue Glover’s Bondagers, tells the story of young women in the 19th century, tied to the land by male farmers. It speaks of the oppression of the bondage system, and the wish for freedom and for a better life, but more so, it speaks to the part of us all that wants to belong. Glover’s play has a rich community feeling and it is this, which draws the emotional response from the audience.
The all-female cast work brilliantly together, showing the differences in status between bondager, wife, and wife of the master. Credit here must be given to Nora Wardell, as the worker turned Lady of the estate. Her impassioned and poignant speech in the second act explained her feeling of uselessness and lack of identity once her work on the land was taken away from her. The repeated phrase “I am a Lady now” seemed as much to be for her sake as for the benefit of the audience. Cath Whitefield should also be mentioned for her standout performance as Tottie. Described in a motherly tone as having “some bad days”, Whitehead showed Tottie’s deteriorating mental state beautifully. Her simplicity and the mix of nonsense and moments of utter clarity lead the audience to really feel for the character as she struggled to live through her reality. It is significant that although we never see any of the men on stage, they are as fully drawn as one would hope. We understand their natures, flaws and strengths, through the language of the women on stage.
The staging was sparse, with wooden boxes being carried on and off, standing in for a multitude of items. This allowed the focus to remain on the language and the characters’ difficulties throughout the play. The mulch covering the floor of the stage made the setting obvious from the beginning and gave off a certain smell, which provided the play with authenticity.
It seems only natural that a play of this style would incorporate music. This is done well and the strength of the voices meant that even unaccompanied, the music was heard throughout. The pattern here of one voice then joined by others was a little expected but worked very naturally and matched the action successfully. This intermingling of song and dialogue was the show’s most effective feature as it worked to further the story and emotional response of the audience, and gave the play a truthfulness perhaps otherwise impossible.
Strong accents were heard, necessary considering the setting in the Scottish Borders, and were maintained throughout. While these became easier, parts of the play, and particularly the first song, were lost to the audience. Without the music and this Scottish setting the plot could have dragged a little as often we expect the following action. Overall, however, the actors worked hard to build their connections, and portray the rough emotions of the women living in these circumstances.