Sunset Song, the first instalment of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s highly regarded Scot’s Quair trilogy has always been plagued by an identity crisis of sorts. At the time of its 1971 BBC adaptation the novel was facing consignment to the literary graveyard as its life in print seemed under threat.
Thanks to the success of that screenplay however and a guaranteed place on secondary school library shelves the past three decades have seen a revival in its fortunes, peaking in 2005 when it was voted Best Scottish Book of All Time.
Now, as His Majesty’s Theatre company reaches the penultimate leg of its national tour at Edinburgh’s King’s Theatre, Sunset Song reaches out to a new audience, challenging them to inspect and re-evaluate their own relationship with their land and heritage.
A sense of schizophrenia abounds at the heart of the production with Grassic Gibbon’s protagonist Chris Guthrie constantly referring to two Chrises. There’s the Chris bound to a life of toil on the land of her parents’ farm in the Howe o’ the Mearns and then there’s the second Chris, the Chris lauded as the family’s scholar and encouraged by her father to stick to her books with the promise of a liberating career in teaching.
Presented as a series of flashbacks, Chris, played sensitively by Hannah Donaldson, reflects on the events of her childhood that lead to her position in the 1920s as a widow, mother and new wife of the minister of Kinraddie. Her life story is a series of binary oppositions, juxtaposing mother against father, the aural culture of village life against the written learning of books, and Scots dialect against English language. “I love it and hate it in a breath” encapsulates Chris’ frustration to place herself in a world rapidly changing, where her accepted position in the family is suddenly shattered by her mother’s suicide and her father’s increasingly incestuous advances.
Beautiful stagecraft set against backdrop stills of the Kincardinshire countryside masterfully represent the struggles of a long since disappeared community to live off the land. Set pieces bring to life harvest madness, Hogmanay feasting and the horror of the Great War mud.
Yet Sunset Song is perhaps most effective in its knowing treatment of the pre-contraception plight of women. Portraying both the joys and the terrifying drudgery of enforced childbirth with acute honesty critics have often questioned whether it was in fact written by a woman.
While certain sequences such as Chris and Euan’s wedding night are rendered prudish by a facile and censored dance routine which merely raised school boy sniggers in the auditorium, overall Sunset Song plays as an elegy to a Scotland long gone. Performed in broad Scots with a high emphasis on fiddling and aural culture this production reinforces Grassic Gibbon’s place in the national conscience.
Review by Katie Smyth