I Am Thomas at the Lyceum Theatre

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.

 

The Weir. Lyceum Theatre

Last night I went to see The Weir, by Conor McPherson, directed by Amanda Gaughan at the Lyceum Theatre. Before I get on to the meat and potatoes of the play I have to also say I sat in one of the worst audiences I have ever been in.

We were in the upper circle, and had a pretty good views of the stage.  Once the performance started though it was like at least 50% of the upper circle were conspiring to break any dramatic tension or concentration.  There was the woman who told someone off very loudly and aggressively for using a phone, and other people for talking, but thought it was ok for herself to turn round and comment to us loudly about the swearing in the play.  There were a group of school children, who I think maybe did not have English as a first language, who spent a lot of the time whispering to each other.  There were then the multiple times people got up to speak to the ushers and complain, move seats, come back to collect bags, the ushers (who were obviously having a tough performance) coming down repeatedly to ask people to switch off phones or to be quiet.  Then the school children left, loudly and slowly.  This was all in the first twenty minutes and completely ruined the part of the narrative where we have the place, character and relationships set up.

The play is set in a rural Irish pub.  I was with a Irish friend who commented afterwards that the Irishness of it was rendered accurately.  It is a wet and rainy night, and a new member of the community, a woman, comes to this pub populated by men, and the telling of ghost stories ensues.

The telling of ghost stories is just a vehicle though to say something larger about story telling itself.  What the play ultimately tells us is that when we tell any story (in whatever genre) we are really talking about ourselves.  Whether it is the self as an individual of the self of wider humanity.  It’s not just the telling of stories that gives us this information though, it’s how we chose to hear the story, how the hearers reacts, that informs that informs the continuing unvoiced dialogue between people.

The atmosphere was beautifully accomplished, with the splashes of rain in puddles visible to the audience, and a slow sunset and rising moon in real time creating the kind of attention to detail that is the foundation of the illusion of theatre.  The cast, while having a challenging performance due to the audience carried on professionally, and their skilled performances easily brought whole, and familiar, lives and characters of the pub customers to life.  Special mention has to go for Lucianne McEvoy’s gripping monologue, and to the whole cast, for one of the best silences I’ve ever heard.

The version of humanity that McPherson shows us in this play is one which at times is a little pompous, a little scared, kind and with a tender interior.  Most of all it is a humanity which is a little broken, a little battered, a little rough around the edges, but one where hearts can recognise and sing their sadnesses to each other – and this in itself is ordinary, mundane, and slightly beautiful.

The Weir: Four stars

Upper circle audience:  No stars