Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, the first of his famous trilogy A Scots Quair, is a classic of modern Scottish literature. Set in the rural north-east around the time of the first world war, it ripples with local vernacular and traces Scotland’s place in the world. Alastair Cording’s adaptation is therefore a natural crowd-puller, which is why Prime Productions has brought it back barely a year after its initial run.
The piece follows the travails of free-spirited farmer’s daughter Chris Guthrie from childhood to her first, ultimately tragic, marriage. Her world is shaped by the unrelenting brutality of her Presbyterian father, John. Repulsed by his fear of sexuality and his violence, she finds herself increasingly drawn towards the emotionally liberated and the politically radical.
There is something solid and honest about Benjamin Twist’s production as it follows Chris’s seemingly inevitable passage into a world of sexual gossip, conscientious objection and social opprobrium. With its singing ploughmen and lamenting piper, the drama reflects a certain musical robustness that is of a part with its Kincardineshire setting.
However, Cording seems to have clipped the piece’s wings unnecessarily by giving it a nostalgic aspect. Sunset Song is the work of an avowed Marxist, and had respectable Scotland in paroxysms of moral indignation at its sexual frankness and social irreverence. Here, however, it seems safe, almost gentrified. The main reason is that the story is under-dramatised. Too often events are narrated to the audience by one character or another rather than represented on stage. Not only do we feel the lack of sexual and political passion, but the regular asides operate like theatrical speed bumps, preventing the production from developing any momentum.
The pity is that there are signs of what could have been. The use of simple sound effects and visual images creates an elemental sense of the story’s rural world. Live music is used to brilliantly tense effect during the last, appalling encounter between the ageing, mad John Guthrie and his daughter.
The performances, too, are fine: Cora Bissett is splendid as Chris, and Paul Morrow is a powerfully bold John. But this doesn’t add up to a genuinely satisfying staging of a much-loved novel.
Reviewed at Dundee Rep
This review was originally published in The Guardian on 5 September 2002
© Mark Brown