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Scottish classic revived

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Commemorating the start of the Great War, Sell a Door Theatre Company has revived Alastair Cording’s faithful adaptation of the classic novel Sunset Song, writes Susan Welsh


With the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I being marked across the globe, there’s no better time for a stage version of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song to be touring.

The classic tale, presented by the Sell a Door Theatre Company, and directed for the first time by a woman – Julie Ellen – serves as a sharp reminder of how the Great War changed lives, both at the frontline and at home.

“Sunset Song is one of those books about which everybody says ‘it’s my favourite book’,” said Julie.

“I’ve always thought of it as a powerful piece of storytelling: one small person’s life against this vast background of war, along with a sense that, while you might be part of a small community, there’s a great big world out there.

Director Julie Ellen
Director Julie Ellen

The 1932 novel is regarded widely as one of the most important Scottish books of the 20th century.

Set in the Mearns in north-east Scotland, the main character is Chris Guthrie.

Her family is torn apart after her mother murders her twin baby brothers, then commits suicide.

Chris is left to run the family farm with her father, who becomes bedridden eventually.

“While Chris is forced to work on the family farm, she dreams of becoming a teacher, but eventually realises there’s something about the land that makes it impossible for her to leave, so she turns her energies and strengths into making the most of the farm,” said Julie.

“She marries a handsome local boy, Ewan, they work hard and have a child and everything looks rosy.

“Then comes this much bigger thing, war, which strips the village of nearly all the men and changes everything for ever.

“Brutalised by his experiences, Ewan treats Chris very badly when he comes home on leave.

“But Sunset Song is not just about their story, but about the journey of women who, because of the war, made progress towards a more-emancipated future through learning and self determination.

“Women had to do many things that had previously been thought of as jobs for men, and from that they were able to find a new future for themselves.

“But there’s also a great deal in the story about how the world is physically changed by events on a much bigger scale out there.

“The area is deforested as part of the war effort and it’s an incredible tragedy that people’s attitudes, as reflected in that particular story, focused on short-term gain rather than the long-term future.”

Sell a Door are staging the Alastair Cording version of the book, which has been staged twice before, but never by a woman.

“I’m glad I haven’t seen either of the other productions, which are legendary, as that might be daunting, but I believe my perspective will bring a different slant to it,” said Julie.

“It’s not without its terrors, but I’m loving it.

“It has really been a fantastic journey of discovery and deeper understanding of the history of Scotland and how it related to the Great War and, for me, looking at the role it played in the development of women’s cause.”

Still relevant for today’s audiences, the play serves as a powerful reminder of what happens when people go to war, but also holds dear those who were shot for desertion, humiliated socially for not signing up for the war effort straight away, or who chose to become conscientious objectors.

The cast includes Rebecca Elise (Chris Guthrie), Alan McHugh (John Guthrie), Clare Waugh (Jean Guthrie), Craig Anthony-Ralston (Ewan Tavendale), David McKay (Chae Strachan), Fraser Sivewright (Will Guthrie), Jennifer Hainey (Margaret Strachan) and Sandy Nelson (Rob Duncan).

Sunset Song is at Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, from next Monday,
October 27, until Wednesday, October 29, with performances
nightly at 7.30pm, plus
a 1.30pm matinee on the 29th. Call 01463 234234 or visit
It opens at HM Theatre, Aberdeen, on Armistice Day, Tuesday, November 11, and runs until Thursday, November 13.
Performances at 7.30pm nightly. Call 01224
641122 or visit www.aberdeenperforming