THEATRE / A chip off the old block: Paul Taylor on TAG theatre company's A Scot's Quair at Assembly Hall,

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The Independent Culture
'FORGIVE me for asking,' ventured the Scottish man sitting next to me, 'but do you know what a 'quair' is?' It's been the burning question during the first week of the festival, so I wasn't all that surprised to be asked, just a little troubled as to why he seemed so confident that I'd be the one to know. This column is now happy to put readers' minds at rest. A 'quair' is a 'quire', as in a quantity of paper, so A Scots Quair, the title of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's trilogy of novels, now dramatised by Glasgow's TAG theatre company, means something like 'a sheaf of Scottishness'.

Well, a Sassenach doesn't need to be Dr Johnson to quail just a little at such a prospect, particularly as the books, the last of which has the turn-off title Grey Granite, look a touch forbidding. So it's a pleasure to report that to watch TAG's fine trilogy of adaptations is to have most of these prejudices emphatically overturned.

Covering a large swathe of Scottish history, the three plays follow their heroine, Chris Guthrie, from the early years of the century through to the Depression, from adolescence in the close rural community of Kinraddie through to womanhood as a minister's wife in a grim post-War town, then on to widowhood in an even grimmer city and finally back full circle to the enduring land. It's true that the first play, Sunset Song, is much the strongest but it would be a mistake to see Cloud Howe or Grey Granite in isolation. Those who opt for the whole experience are unlikely, I'd wager, to feel that they have wasted any of the six-and-a-half hours it takes Tony Graham and Andy Howitt's productions to unfold.

Moving to the cyclical rhythm of the seasons, Sunset Song is the most shapely and emotionally satisfying of the pieces and the one that shows off best this attractive company's skills at fluent ensemble story-telling through drama, dance, haunting music (played by the actors), song and mime.

A corn-coloured carpet with slanting brown lines extends down the stepped thrust stage, evoking the furrowed fields from which Chris's strained, irascible father (the excellent Michael Mackenzie) wrings a living. The play shows the changes which overcome this community thanks to industrialisation and the Great War, the slaughter at the front pitiously presented here as a perpetual-motion loop of young men in khaki and kilts, repeatedly scythed down, repeatedly dragging themselves upright to be mown down anew.

The futility feels all the greater in that some of these Scottish soldiers had, we see, an understandably ambivalent attitude to a war fought for King and country. Hustled into volunteering through fear of being thought a coward, Chris's first husband (Stuart Bowman) degenerates into an demoralised drunk, who is eventually shot for desertion.

There's a gruff, sharp-flavoured humour in the piece, as when we hear the new minister at the Kirk preaching on the Song of Solomon with a majestically dour obliviousness to its erotic qualities. They're not lost on its audience, though, who are well pleased with a cleric who introduces them to porn. 'A fine way to have your pleasure by proxy,' one of them comments, 'down in the stalls of the Kirk.' What is harsh and unlovely about this world is also made plain, though. When Chris's mother commits suicide because of one too many pregnancies, her daughter has to give up any thoughts of education and take her place. It becomes bleakly apparent that her bed-ridden father would like the place taken in every sense. In an excellent scene, to the sinister strut of a grumbling cello, Chris is shown tied to her father by a leather rein and straining to resist being pulled into his sick-bed.

Only the arty dancing grates a bit, particularly when in the two succeeding plays we reach the world of disillusioned veterans, the general strike, soured potential and later, the communist activities of Chris's son during the Depression. Exploring the 'clouds' (Christianity; Marxism) that beguile the minds of men like Chris's minister husband (a fine Stewart Porter), whom the horror of war left desperate for some countervailing creed of hope, these pieces lack the texture and the focus of the first, but they are well worth persisting with, not least because of the moving, simple dignity of Pauline Knowles's compelling central performance. Throughout she's a human being, never Scotland's answer to Cathleen ni Houlihan. You come away resolving to read the novels.

Assembly Hall, The Mound (031- 225 5756) 24, 27 Aug 7.30pm; 24 Aug & 1 Sept 2pm; 21, 28 Aug & 4 Sept 1pm