Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, dramatized by Gerda Stevenson

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Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, dramatized by Gerda Stevenson (2009).  Dir. David Ian Neville.  Perf. Lesely Hart, Finn Den Hertog, Matthew Zajac.  BBC Radio 4 Extra, 22-23 January 2015.  BBCiPlayer to 22 February 2015


Through a combination of rural sound-effects – the sound of farm animals coupled with the blowing of the “fretful elements” – David Ian Neville’s production evoked the stark world of early twentieth century rural Scotland, wherein people’s lifestyles were clearly delineated.  The men went out and worked the land, while the women were expected to stay at home, look after the children and prepare meals.


The fact that such roles did not appeal to Chris Guthrie (Lesely Hart), the central character of Sunset Song, was left conveniently overlooked.  Although aspiring to be a teacher – so as to escape from a tedious existence – she had little or no opportunity to do so; to many people in her community, education was simply an expensive luxury.  Nonetheless she maintained her aspirations, especially after her mother Jean (Bridget McCann) committed suicide, killing her youngest siblings as well, in a final gesture of frustration at the existence imposed on her.  Women did not even have the right to refuse their husbands’ advances, however unwelcome they might be.


The second episode of this two-part adaptation moved the action forward to the First World War, where many of the community harboring ambivalent feelings about the forthcoming conflict.  Some believed that the war had little or no relevance to their lives; it was something started by the English, and should be treated as such.  The need to maintain the yearly rituals of tilling the land – and bearing children for women – seemed far more significant.  As the realities of the conflict became more apparent, however, so attitudes changed: many of the young men went to enlist in the belief that they should serve their country (Scotland rather than England).  Old loyalties were put to the test: those who refused to enlist were branded as “conchies,” even though they might be devoted to their farming lives.


Meanwhile Chris had married Ewan (Finn Den Hertog) and produced a son.  Determined not to be ostracized by his society, Ewan went off to fight, but in a shocking ending to the dramatization, Chris discovered that he was not quite the man she had first assumed. 


In dramatıc terms, the second episode had a lot to say about the ways in which war impacted on rural communities.  Religion and familial loyalty still had a major – some might say imprisoning – influence over people’s lives, but the strain of having to maintain some sense of social order in the absence of male partners put those ideas to the test.  In particular Chris felt a sense of closeness to Long Rob (Matthew Zajac), which expressed itself through heavy breathing and stolen kisses.  Yet their relationship could not be allowed to prosper, as it might have undermined the foundations of the community that had nurtured them both.


As Chris, Lesely Hart came across as a strong-willed personality, determined to fight for her family’s future, yet painfully aware of the constraints that limited her attempts at self-expression.  Motherhood was something painful for her, both physically and emotionally; the childbirth sequence was especially disturbing, punctuated with lengthy screams as she tried her best to push the baby out, while simultaneously describing her feelings to the listeners.  Once left alone, she tried her best to create a safe environment for her son, but the combination of bad news from the Western Front and primitive living conditions in her rural community rendered that task extremely difficult.


This was not a pleasant world; unlike the film Whisky Galore! (1949) which creates a romantic picture of rural Scotland, full of pipe-smoking elders and happy families, Neville’s production portrayed a stark, unpleasant environment where men had scant respect for their women, frequently describing them as bitches.  Women were no more than glorified servants, expected to put food on the table whenever their partners wished, while providing sexual gratification in the evening.  It was a tribute to Chris’s strength of character that she managed to transcend this role and try to make a life for herself.