JOYCE MCMILLAN on SUNSET SONG at the Concert Hall, Perth, for The Scotsman 13.9.14.
4 stars ****
AFTER AN Edinburgh Festival that featured at least two superb shows – from Moscow and Hamburg – commemorating the trauma of the Great War that began in 1914, now here comes another, strong enough to bear comparison with them in vision and depth, but rooted in the soil of Scotland, and in the great writing of Lewis Grassic Gibbon. First published in 1932, Sunset Song famously tells the story of young Chris Guthrie, the daughter of a tenant farmer in the Mearns of north-east Scotland; a girl who is bright enough to hope for a university education, but whose life takes another path after the complex and tragic deaths of her parents, and her marriage, at New Year 2014, to a handsome young ploughman, Ewan Tavendale.
The greatness of Grassic Gibbon’s novel lies not only in its superb account of how the 1914-18 war brought an end to an ancient way of life on the land, but also in its clear-eyed assessment of the harshness of that way of life, and the bitter cruelty of some aspects of the religious and patriarchal culture into which young Chris was born. And all of this is brought to the stage with impressive lyricism and feeling in Julie Ellen’s new production for the Beacon Arts Centre and young touring company Sell A Door, which opened at Perth Concert Hall this week before a comprehensive tour of Scotland.
Set on an open stage which evokes the landscape of the Guthrie’s farm, Blawearie, Ellen’s production features a range of fine performances, from a bright, vulnerable yet steel-strong Rebecca Elise as Chris, a dark and troubled Alan McHugh as John Guthrie, a wonderfully moving Clare Waugh as Chris’s mother, Jean, and Sandy Nelson as Long Rob Of The Mill, a steady point in Chris’s turbulent life. What’s most striking about the production, though, is the quietly powerful, eloquent flow of movement across the stage, as all the great ideas of the 19th and 20th centuries – patriotism, socialism, individual freedom – begin to surge through the Mearns, changing lives, destroying a whole generation of young men. And Julie Ellen and her ten-strong company can take pride in a powerfully-staged show which does full justice to one of the greatest of all Scottish novels; and also leaves 21st century audiences with plenty to think about, in terms of war and peace, community and freedom, and the right of women to determine their own fate, amid all the winds of social change.