Tonight I went to see I Am Thomas at the Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh. Writen by Told by and Idiot with song lyrics by Simon Armitage. The play is about Thomas Aitkenhead, the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy. Aitkenhead was indicted in 1696 and hung in 1697.
I was looking forward to this play as the 1600s in Scotland is one of my favourite historical periods. It was bloody and brutal, both physically and psychologically. It was characterised by extreams, fanaticism, inflexibility and religion. One of my direct ancestors was executed without trial as a terrorist during this period. But I have more than a distant genetic connection to the Killing Times and surrounding troubles. I believe that it is this period that did the most to shape the Scottish psyche and character, it probably really was the worst of Scotland. Having grown-up with strict fanatical Presbyterian/Calvinist parents it has also in many ways shaped and informed who I am. It is a period rich with drama, conflict and many intriguing characters – all of which can illuminate and tell us something about the state of Scotland today.
Thomas Aitkenhead, only 19 when he committed his crime, was also judged by the older, more experienced Lord Advocate, James Stewart. Stewart himself had been a political rebel in his youth, having to flee Scotland for Europe to escape arrest for writing a political pamphlet. It could be expected that the interplay between these two men, as well as Thomas’s own journey from believer to doubter would prove fertile ground for dramatic tension.
I Am Thomas however failed to live up to the promise of conflict and character this story could so richly mine. There were confusing time lines, in which it appears Thomas commits his blasphemy at an open mic in 1970s? Stewart, an interesting figure himself, is given the historically inaccurate background of being husband and son to the Wigtown martyrs. Instead of gaining knowledge and insight into historical events we watch Stewart’s fake family drown twice, and the most underwhelming courtroom scene that I believe has ever existed.
The play is also littered with lazy cultural references, some of which make no sense or bare little relation to action on stage. Stage action is explained poorly by the hackneyed technique of football punditry and scattered through with vague references to Scottish kitsch. Given the kitsch bares no relation to the historical event one has to wonder if it is a way of signposting “This is happening in Scotland. It’s very Scottish you know. It’s Scotland, by the way.”
The point at the end “I am Thomas” i.e. we are all Thomas, was overly laboured and lacked any subtlety. The audience were bludgeoned over the head with it to the point of boredom. An act that was then followed by the mildly offensive statement “Je suis Thomas”. It is a shame when a play does not assume its audience are intelligent enough to draw their own conclusions, and instead seeks to control their approach entirely.
While attention had been given to try and present this story in a fresh and innovative way it was undermined by immaturity and lack of development. The actors themselves delivered fine performances, and special mention has to go to John Pfumojena who has truly one of the most sublime voices I have ever heard.