Sunset Song

Morna Young after Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Dundee Rep Theatre with Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh
Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh

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Sunset Song

It’s likely true that for a great many Scots, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair is a trilogy of books both loved and loathed in equal measure. The first novel, Sunset Song, has long been a staple of the syllabus at many high schools, and traipsing through the fictional parish of Kinraddie’s pastoral elementalism and pathetic fallacies was the bane of many Scottish schoolchildren.

Luckily, despite such introductions, the story still manages to capture a quintessential Scottishness that defies the more than 90 years since its original publication. What’s more, the story is so imbued with rich themes of dualism, life, work, sex and death that even in 2024, it has a wealth of depth to plumb.

With this in mind, it’s not a surprising choice for the Dundee Rep Theatre and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh to have collaborated in this new co-production, an adaptation of Sunset Song that is as deeply and intrinsically rooted in the very soil of Kincardinshire as the characters themselves. Set on a simple stage, with a backdrop of smeared paint, resembling earthly furrows, the eight-strong cast move back and forth atop a literal field of soil.

Danielle Jam portrays the central character, Christine (Chris) Gurthrie, the eldest daughter of peasant farmers John (Ali Craig) and Jean (Rori Hawthorn). But she’s a child born of two worlds: as her father’s iron will demands, she is schooled and educated, while her mother pushes her to go out into the fields and the air. Therein begins the fundamental series of dualities that carry Chris through the tempestuous early years of the 20th century. The “Two Chrisses” that exist inside her, English Chris and Scottish Chris, one tied to learning and modernity, the other to the auld Scots tongue and the hard graft of the land, all surrounded by fickle joys and ever-deepening tragedies and calamities around her.

The cast are well directed, with Finn den Hertog wringing emotion from them without things ever seeming mawkish or exploitative. This is an achievement in itself, as the book’s plot is more than a little melodramatic at times and it would be easy to let the story revel in its own misery. Instead, there is a dreamlike quality to the production that fits with Chris’s head-in-a-book distractedness that seems to suffuse her.

Morna Young’s adaptation pushes heavily into portraying the various violences that surround Chris, taking from the text where necessary but giving voice and urgency to the changing emotions, with ample support from Finn Anderson’s music. Much like with her adaptation of The Snow Queen, there is a reliance on the use of traditional Scots language. In this case, Gibbon’s own simplified Scots gives it a thematic resonance, but at times, it’s more than a little cumbersome, as even the cast seems to be chewing through a few of the lines with difficulty.

There are some other curious stylistic choices in the piece that come off to varying degrees of success. The soil as stage concept is brilliant, and the characters variously picking up or casting handfuls of it throughout keeps things thematically rooted to the land at all times. While having the cast literally stand in a circle, embodying the standing stones is a perfect touch, the portrayal of a sexual assault through screaming and grunting into microphones at the edge of set just comes across as needlessly over the top, and goes on a little too long.

And being a little too long is possibly also the broadest criticism that could be levelled at the play, as well as the source material. Gibbon’s Sunset Song is absolutely much of a muchness, an evocation of decades of spring joy and winter’s sorrow perpetrated upon the land and Scotland as a whole, with Chris embodying an allegorical stand-in for the Highlands and her way of life.

But even with the adaptation skimming some of the fat and extraneous characters from the story, there’s simply too much in this play, leaving Chris as something of a passenger in a story that seems to happen to her and rarely revolves around her, utilising much of her own agency. The connective tissue that the book implies simply isn’t there in this play, leaving moments like her decision to keep the farm or her sadness at her tyrannical father’s death feeling baffling and unearned.

That’s not to say that the piece lacks charm; it’s an entertaining romp, with shocking moments, laughs and genuinely charismatic turns, particularly from Ali Craig’s John as the terrifying lecherous patriarch and Naomi Stirrart as Will, Chris’s independent and insightful brother. There’s a sense of community during the various scenes of gatherings in Kinraddie, when Long Rob (Sam Pashby) and Chae (Ann Louise Ross) visit to lament the ills of politics and the brewing hostilities of the War. It’s a piece that works best when looking at the community as a whole, and the final moments bring a solemnity and gravity that underlines this in a way that feels missing from much of the earlier moments.

It’s a play that aims high, and, although it doesn’t quite manage to hit the bullseye, it has put a modern slant on a classic Scottish text and rounded it off with aplomb, leaving the audience stirred and satisfied and perhaps a little more in love with the ground beneath their feet.

Reviewer: Graeme Strachan

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