JOYCE MCMILLAN on BURNS THEATRE 2009 for Scotsman Review 16.1.09
TOWARDS NINE O’CLOCK next Saturday evening, on the very eve of Robert Burns’s 250th birthday, strange sights will be seen around the old bridge over the river Doune at Alloway, near the cottage where the poet was born. There will be a capacity crowd of tens of thousands of people, selected by ballot as winners of the free tickets for the event, which launches Scotland’s year of Homecoming 2009, as well as the Burns celebration. In the inn beside the bridge, there will be last-minute preparations for a major official Burns Supper, hosted by the First Minister.
And towards the very keystone of the bridge – where Burns’s famous hero Tam O’Shanter once leapt to freedom from pursuing witches on his grey mare Meg – will move a fabulous, beautifully lit sculpted image of the horse and rider, designed by some of Britain’s leading artists to capture the key image of all that Burns represents, in Scottish and world culture. This is the huge UZ Events street show Iconic Burns, funded by Events Scotland and South Ayrshire Council, and jointly created by the cutting-edge outdoor theatre team of designer and sculptor Graeme Gilmour, lighting designer Phil Supple, and Scottish-based master of street theatre, Ian Smith; and although it won’t be the only theatre event associated with this year’s Burns anniversary, it will be the “iconic” one, the image most closely associated with the year.
It’s been part of Burns’s fate, of course, to be associated with the tartan-tinged “couthification” of Scottish culture over the last two centuries. The 250th anniversary itself has become linked to the tourist marketing effort associated with Homecoming 2009; and the Scots tongue in which Burns often wrote – and to which he did such remarkable service, by collecting and preserving the beautiful traditional songs of his Ayrshire chldhood – has become associated in many minds only with low-life comedy and abuse. Hence last year’s entertaining row between assorted Scottish academics and Jeremy Paxman, who dismissed Burns as the “king of doggerel”.
Fans of Scottish kitsch will be in for a shock, though, if they expect a reassuring approach from this year’s theatre shows on Burns themes; because in recent Scottish theatre, it’s the wilder side of Burns – his surreal imagination, his instinctive democratic radicalism, and his sweet celebration of love and desire in a culture famous for sexual repression and hypocrisy – that has caught the imagination of artists, and produced some outstanding work. As long ago as 1965, when the actor John Cairney launched his lifelong career as a stage interpreter of Burns, in Tom Wright’s solo play There Was A Man at the Traverse, there was a radical 1960’s twist to Wright’s view of Burns as a freedom-fighter for personal truth and liberation. Back in 1990, at the Tramway, Gerry Mulgrew – whose new version of Tam O’Shanter opens at Perth Theatre this month – famously worked with writer Liz Lochhead on Jock Tamson’s Bairns, a passionate parody of an establishment Burns’ Supper.
In 2003, Unique Events’s Burns And A’ That festival, which has been running in Ayrshire every year for a decade, sponsored a memorably sinister, commedia dell’arte-style Burns show by Andy Arnold of the Arches, which ended in a fiercely elegiac sung version of To A Mouse, as a lament for the destruction of nature. And even Iconic Burns, as the officially-sponsored centrepiece of next weekend’s celebration, has been inspired to some extent by Angus Farquhar of NVA’s radical site-specific show Fall From Light, a dystopian reverse version of Tam O’Shanter’s journey from superstition to reason, staged at Alloway in 2002 as part of the Burns And A’ That Festival.
So what are Scotland’s theatre artists trying to achieve, in this year of Burns celebration? For Neil Butler of UZ Events, it’s all about emphasising the increasing creative power of outdoor theatre, and the huge contribution of Scottish artists to that development. For Gerry Mulgrew, at Perth Theatre, it’s a chance to revisit the real stuff of Burns’s poetry, and to celebrate the modernity of a poet that some of his younger cast-members see almost as an 18th century rapper. “I’ve been re-reading poems like The Vision and The Twa Dugs,” says Mulgrew, “terrific pieces that people often don’t really read any more, and I’ll be using them to provide a context for Tam O’Shanter. So to people who say Burns is overrated, I’d say, how much of his poetry have you really read? I think he’s a great satirist, really politically astute, with a terrific command of language. And what he achieved, in terms of writing poetry in the ordinary language of the people, was tremendously influential on other writers of his time, people like Wordsworth and Shelley.”
And for Donald Smith of the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh – who sponsors Andy Cannon of Wee Stories latest Burns show, Oor Rabbie, as part of his current season of Burns events for all ages – it’s about asking “not what the Burns anniversary can do for you and your budget, but what you can do for the memory of Burns. Like most people doing Burns shows this year, we’ve not had any funding from the Events Scotland Homecoming budget. But the truth is that we want to celebrate Burns anyway.
“On one hand, his work has a tremendous socially cohesive effect, as if people in Scotland say, yes, this is a set of values around which we can really gather; yet on the other, there’s this tremendous internationalism, and the huge international interest in his work, which is really healthy. And if there is a bit of Burns kitsch around this year – well, I’ve learned that that just makes people all the more appreciative of a fresh and exciting take on Burns, when they have a chance to experience it; and to rediscover the real, radical spirit of the man, through his work.”
Iconic Burns at Alloway, Ayrshire, 24 January. Tam O’Shanter at Perth Theatre, 29 January-14 February. Scottish Storytelling Centre Burns Celebration at the Netherbow, Edinburgh, until 31 January.