It is easy to see why Robin Jenkins’ 1955 novel, The Cone Gatherers, has become a Scottish classic and compared to Steinbeck’s American classic, Of Mice and Men. Based on Jenkins’ own experiences working for the Forestry Commission as a Conscientious Objector, the story deals with issues of class, injustice, attitudes to disability and the impact of Nazism.
It is set in the time of World War II in the forest of a Scottish estate where two Gypsy brothers, Calum and Neil, are employed by Lady Runcie-Campbell as part of the war effort to collect cones for re-seeding after deforestation.
The Laird himself is absent as he is fighting in North Africa. The estate’s head gamekeeper, Duror, is a troubled man with an invalid wife of 18 years. He takes an instant dislike to the brothers, especially the younger Neil, whose deformity offends him and whose presence is a catalyst to a personal obsession that ends in tragedy.
Hayden Griffin’s striking set is like a torrent of long, sharp needles. It is reminiscent of a Penguin book cover for the novel and is both effective and atmospheric. It stands as the practical working world of the two men and as the evil space in the mind of Duror. As Neil says, ‘…use the world or get used in it’.
The set casts dark shadows both physically and metaphorically with the two men melting in to the shadows as they climb for cones. It provides a backdrop for projections of Nazi newsreels of the time when ironically there was a moment of light relief when Calum and Neil rush out of the cinema at an anachronistic standing for the playing of the ‘queen’.
Each brother is sensitive. Neil rails against society’s unfairness. When he and his brother are refused a lift in the landowner’s car in pouring rain, knowing that the landowners’ dogs are allowed there, Neil is bitter and enraged at their being like slaves and worse than dogs.
When Calum witnesses an innocent animal’s agony at inflicted pain, either when caught in a trap or when shot during the hunt, he is distraught. Yet it is the innocent and compliant Calum who incurs Duror’s hatred, not the clear sighted and radically minded Neil.
Someone in the trade said to me recently that when costumes are done right, they are not even noticed. Garys Hobbs skills in this department did just that, providing understated elegance where required and working clothes that looked just that for all the occupations involved.
The casting of a woman (Helen Mackay) to play young master Roddie was odd as her body language was utterly feminine. This suggests a softness in the boy, whose wisdom in his consideration of the cone gatherers’ humanity out ranks the adults’. However, if that was the reasoning for not casting a male youth, the implication that a ‘real’ male is incapable of such feelings is a dangerous road to go down.
Nothing can match reading Jenkins’ powerful, original text, but this latest production is an important and timely reminder of the dangers of how people who are ‘different’ are viewed.
The text’s narration was provided by a Greek Chorus in the form of a slow rap from the servants in this a fine ensemble piece with a cast of new and well- established actors, among whom Helen Logan as Peggy and Mrs. Morton and Rodney Matthew as Tulloch and the Doctor were notable, with Jennifer Black her usual cool, assured self.
Tuesday to Saturday, October 23 to 27th at King’s Theatre in Edinburgh. Tour continues 30 October – 10 November at Perth Theatre
£29.50 - £14