Kate Higgins reviews Not in My Name.
Well the circus is about to leave town. The first two weeks of the Fringe are exciting, but come the third, Edinburgh seems just a bit deflated and steamrollered by it all. Next week, audible sighs of relief will be heard from the New Town to the Old.
I’ve scarcely been to anything this year. The one show I did manage along to, though, deserved more than the fleeting Tweet I gave it. It’s well worth going to see and there’s still time to catch it. Just.
Robert Burns: Not in my Name is Kevin Williamson’s tribute to the Bard and by now, having had many shows’ rehearsal, it will be flying. It’s much more than a Burns afficionado reciting poetry – though Kevin does do that, in a very natty T shirt. In fact, it is a wonderful multi-media experience celebrating ten works written by Burns, but either anonymously or in a pseudonym, and only published after his death. Some will be familiar to the audience, many others will not.
The poems are presented chronologically and are by turns, seditious, treacherous, bawdy and emotive. One minute I had tears in my eyes, the next I was laughing out loud. What makes this a glorious sensory experience is the wrap-around treatment. Each poem is introduced by a contextualising short film – words written by Kevin Williamson, performed by Alastair Cook. The film explains how the poem came to be, where it appeared and Burns’ motivation for writing it. Each film was directed by John Paul McGroarty and there is a haunting, minimalist soundtrack composed by Luca Nascuiti.
It sounds like it really shouldn’t work, but it so does. The juxtaposition of sound, words, images should jar but the way to appreciate each film is to allow it to envelope you and prepare you for the main event. For that assault on the senses is simply the warm up, to set in stark relief, the recitations.
Williamson manages utterly to capture the meaning of each Burns poem. He stays true to the original text but also contemporises the poems, not only by the very modern media setting within which he places each one, but also by the imagery on the backdrop accompanying it. Burns was a man of his own time but is also of ours. His modernity and relevance to current events – riots, wars, poverty, media and political scandals – is almost breathtaking, and Williamson allows Burns’ words to speak for themselves.
My favourites? The outrageous Why should na poor folk moue? It’s comedic, passionate and Kevin allows the words to sing and the rhythm to flow. With Burns, it’s not just the words but he brings those words to life using cadence. The rhythmic nature of each line and verse, which reaches to a crescendo… well, you don’t need me to spell it out. And in a quirk of fate, Burns plea is a topic oft discussed today, relating to tensions about the “wrong sorts breeding” and the poor finding pleasure in pastimes some would rather they didn’t.
But the one which moved me the most was The Tree of Liberty. I hadn’t heard this recited before and having read it many times, I’ll confess to having only grasped fleetingly at its greatness and significance. Kevin recited it with passion but allowed the meaning and the words to speak for themselves. Nothing needed to be added to illustrate this poem’s modern day relevance, given the tumult in the world. If ever the Arab Spring and recent events in Libya needed a universal anthem, this might be it.
This is a great show. Well crafted, expertly performed. Every unit is worthy of praise but it is in how it all pulls together to put Burns and his poetry centre stage, that it works best of all.
On at the National Libary of Scotland every evening at 7pm until 28 August. Go see.
And if you needed another reason to do so…. On the way out, I asked two women what they thought and why they’d come. Because it was a chance to see someone from Edinburgh at the Fringe, someone they knew vaguely from living in Leith. And we don’t get nearly enough of our homegrown talent on this big stage, they said. Quite.