It takes a brave or foolish man to try and step into Robert Burns’s Scotland-size shoes but Bella Caledonia’s Kevin Williamson is doing it for fourteen nights in August. Here he explains why:
I’ve never been comfortable with the concept of Robert Burns, The Shortbread Tin Man; the ubiquitous Scottish commodity, draped in tartan, and toasted once a year with haggis and whisky. This false construct reeks of tourist dollars with a maudlin disregard for historical reality.
Robert Burns was a radical subversive, damn it, who risked his liberty to speak truth to those in power. Plastering his face on couthy tourist tat, in my book, is akin to the Irish dressing James Connolly in a green leprechaun suit and attaching him to key fobs. It’s insulting, degrading, and just plain wrong.
Robert Burns, whether folk like it or not, and some don’t, was a radical, subversive political dissident throughout his creative life. Some of his earliest poems cry out eloquently against oppression, injustice and the treatment of the poor. But rather than toning it down when he became the toast of the Edinburgh bourgeoisie his headstrong egalitarian streak became more pronounced, and more sophisticated, as the years went by.
Burn often found himself treading on dangerous ground. He sympathised with the republican ideals of the American Revolution of 1776, as well as the French Revolution of 1789, despite his own government declaring war on both republics.
Many of his fans are unaware that some of his best known songs – such as the political anthems Scot’s Wha Hae and A Man’s A Man – were considered so subversive when they were written that government spies sought out information to determine the identity of the author. Such was the repressive political climate in the 1790s – sometimes referred to as ‘The Scottish Terror’ – Burns could have been jailed or deported if unmasked.
In 1793, the radical young Scottish lawyer Thomas Muir was sentenced in Edinburgh to fourteen years deportation to Botany Bay. Muir, a leading light of the Scottish Friends of the People, was accused of a number of political crimes. Burns was equally guilty of most of the charges.
Nowadays, given his fame, it should be common knowledge that Burns’s verse was considered too outspoken, too seditious, or, in the case of his erotic poems, too outrageous for him to publicly put his name to. Yet this isn’t the case. The reality of Burns is still far removed from the public perception of him.
Burns didn’t have “a radical side” which was somehow separate from the tenant farmer, the lover, the poet of nature, and the Exciseman. This is a common misconception. As a fellow radical, time-served dissident, and ardent Scottish patriot, it seems natural to me that Burns’s idealistic convictions were intrinsic to everything he did and wrote. They were the heart and soul of the man, his moral compass.
The twelve incendiary works I’ve chosen to include in ‘Robert Burns: Not In My Name’ span the last ten years of the poet’s life. Some are stubbornly patriotic, others rail against injustice, oppression or war, while others are staunchly republican. A couple are erotically-charged verse from The Merry Muses of Caledonia.
Preceding each poem will be twelve short films created specially for the show by award-winning film maker, Alastair Cook, working with composer Luca Nasciuti. Getting Luca on board was a masterstroke by Alastair as his approach to film sound is in the tradition of Bresson and Tarkovsky.
Alastair’s twelve films are visually stunning, providing context and a spoken narrative to help the audience follow the twists and turns of the poet’s complicated life. I’ll perform Burns’s work in the chronological order they were written, to help give a sense of story. Hopefully these disparate elements will blend together into a thoughtful, unified and interesting experience for longtime fans of Burns, as well as those curious to discover more about this ubiquitous Scot and enigmatic rebel.
I’m not aware of any other theatrical experiences that have approached Burns’s life and work in this manner. Drawing on the research of respected Burns scholars such as Thomas Crawford, Liam McIlvaney, Gerrard Carruthers, Robert Crawford and Patrick Scott Hogg, I hope to challenge the safe, couthy, tartanised mythology that has surrounded our national poet for over two centuries. Will the show succeed in its objectives? Come along and find out for yourself!
The show is directed by John-Paul McGroarty, former Director of Leith Festival, and a fellow Burnsian. Diary/blog is at http://robertburnsnotinmyname.com, Twitter @robertburnsbard
‘Robert Burns: Not In My Name’ opens on Thursday 4th Aug at National Library of Scotland on George 4th Bridge (Venue 147), and starts at 7pm each night. Runs 4-12 Aug plus 24-28 Aug. Tickets are priced £8 and £5 concession from the Fringe Box Office. 0131 226 0000.