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Theatre Review: Bondagers (****)

Michael Cox reviews the 'passionate, haunting and emotionally-involving' production at the Lyceum.

It’s the brilliant design that strikes you first in the Lyceum’s production of Bondagers. Floating mist and a long stretch of tilled earth dimly lit like a faded photograph greet the audience. The sight, along with a mossy smell, makes an impression far before the actors appear, working the land while chanting and singing.

Sue Glover’s script is a rather complicated affair. More political statement than history lesson, the play looks at a group of six women—five of them farm workers of differing ages and abilities, the other a former worker who has become the lady of the house—and follows them throughout a year, seeing them toil and fear for a future that seems far more doomed than optimistic. A plot does kick in near the end of the first act when one of them is raped by a ploughman, but Glover’s play seems far more interested in the working and personal lives of the women, individually and as a collective.

Lu Kemp’s production packs quite an emotional wallop. It is beautiful to look at—almost every scene is framed by striking images—but it is the charge she creates, visually and emotionally with her cast, that makes this production terrific. Kemp’s work with designer Jamie Vartan and lighting designer Simon Wilkinson results in a visual tapestry: cold, desolate but also strikingly beautiful. Michael John McCarthy’s music and sound weaves its way around, heightening dramatic arches throughout the action.

And the performances are uniformly excellent. Each woman has at least one stand-out moment, and every one of them is easy to sympathise with. It’s the full commitment that all six women give to their performances that impresses, playing their scenes with utter conviction but also standing in the background during other scenes to add visual depth and executing Ian Spink’s movement direction to great effect.

Perhaps the ghost of the play’s world premiere over twenty years ago haunts any other production for those who saw it, but this current production is nothing to sniff at. Passionate, haunting and emotionally-involving, this Bondagers is an absolute winner.

Bondagers performs at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh until November 15.

Tags: theatre

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