Higher view of drama

18th March 2005 at 00:00
Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song

dramatised by Alastair Cording

Nick Hern Books



Britannia Rules

by Liz Lochhead


Britannia Rules Learning and Teaching Guide

pound;3.50 or free online download

Learning and Teaching Scotland


age range: Higher

Larry Flanagan reviews contextual material for three plays, which can make even simple readings a rich experience

TAG Theatre Company commissioned Alastair Cording's adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song in the early 1990s, when the novel was a popular choice for the specified text option in the Higher English examination.

A good deal of its initial appeal to schools may have stemmed from the insights it offers into the themes and characters of the original text, as much as its own merits as a piece of theatre. The successful 2001 and 2002 revivals of the play by Prime Productions is, however, testimony to one of the key strengths of the adaptation: that it retells effectively a good story that continues to have resonance in Scotland.

As well as containing the stage script, this edition includes notes by Ian Campbell, of Edinburgh University, on Lewis Grassic Gibbon and Sunset Song, an explanation by Cording of his aims and approaches to adapting the novel and a section on theatrical approaches by Benjamin Twist, who directed the Prime Productions show. Together with a scene-by-scene summary of the plot, this presents a considerable amount of useful contextual material, which makes even a simple reading of the script a rewarding experience.

At first glance the absence of any photographic inserts seems odd, but there is a useful reference to a Learning and Teaching Scotland website that provides a fulsome resource for drama students to pursue (including some of the notes reproduced in the book).

Overall, the publication is a welcome resource for both drama students and Higher English candidates studying the novel.

LT Scotland is responsible, also, for the text of Britannia Rules by Liz Lochhead and an accompanying learning and teaching guide.

Britannia Rules is, in fact, a double-bill of connected plays. The first, Shanghaied, is set in 1939 and concerns four children affected by the war-time evacuation of Clydebank. Part two, Elizabeth, revolves around the same four characters 14 years later, on the day of the Queen's coronation.

Shanghaied was Lochhead's first play, written in 1982, and arose out of a workshop collaboration with the Borderline Theatre Company. Children were its original target audience. As might be expected from this writer, it is full of sharply observed mannerisms and oozes with the comic wit of the west of Scotland.

Elizabeth was first performed in 1998. In her introduction, Lochhead declares it to be less theatrical than the first play but it, too, captures the mood and mannerisms of its setting.

Both plays rattle along at a good pace. The stagecraft that would be involved in an effective performance allows for the actors to demonstrate a range of talents, not least being the need to play the first part as four children aged 7 to 10. Thematically the texts cover a range of issues but at the core is the issue of experience and relationships. Part two, in particular, drives home the harsher reality of broken aspirations.

The learning and teaching guide breaks down into two parts: trends and issues in contemporary Scottish theatre and acting roles and acting pieces.

The material and approach are well chosen and the second section in particular would be of great benefit to teachers and drama students exploring the mechanics of performance and stagecraft; the first links clearly to the Higher contemporary Scottish theatre unit.

The text is the real strength of the package, however, and the quality of Lochhead's characterisation and her skill as a wordsmith make these resources a significant boost to the material for Higher drama and English studies.

Larry Flanagan is principal teacher of English at Hillhead High, Glasgow

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