IMMEDIATELY in front of us, a woman is crouched down chopping turnips with a cleaver. In the middle of the stage, two others are knocking the earth off a crop of potatoes, while beyond them the lady of the house is chatting to one of the farmhands. And beyond them still, half hidden in the low winter mist, a figure is collecting sticks in a wicker basket.
This sense of space distinguishes Lu Kemp’s painterly staging of Sue Glover’s play, an evocation of life on a 19th-century Borders farm. From the moment the cast appear in silhouette at the back of Jamie Vartan’s elemental set, Kemp treats the stage like it had the full dimensions of a field. Thanks to Simon Wilkinson’s superb lighting, those dimensions are always uncertain. As the colour temperature increases from cold monochrome to chilly sepia, the landscape is always bigger than those who tread on it.
First seen in 1991, this contemporary Scottish classic is set at a time when male farm workers would be hired on condition of bringing a female worker, or bondager, with them. Poetic, musical and elliptical, the play rises organically from the soil, its narrative line about a sexual assault emerging almost accidentally from its imagistic collage.
Kemp’s six-strong cast hit a strident note from the start, their delivery as tough and hard-edged as the bondagers’ lives. Though they’re a tight acting ensemble, they’re playing women who are atomised and self-reliant. They are more likely to catch the audience in the eye than each other.At times the pitch is brash and unrelenting, but the production brilliantly captures the play’s swirling impressionism, segueing from folk ballad to clog dance to field tilling as it feeds on Glover’s understated feminist rage.