City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Doctor Whom: My search for Samuel Johnson Review


By Vivien Devlin - Posted on 24 August 2009

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Show details
Venue: 
Assembly Rooms
Company: 
Festival Highlights
Performers: 
David Benson

The stage is set: coffee table piled high with antiquarian leather-bound volumes and battered paperbacks; high stool; lectern with a giant dictionary. As the gentle strains of Baroque music fade away, David Benson wanders on in blue jeans, black shirt, linen jacket - and a smile.

For a play about Samuel Johnson, you might expect the actor to wear a permed white wig and velvet smoking jacket, sitting in an armchair with a tankard of claret. But Benson has invented his own personal genre of the one-man show where he does not impersonate per se, but blends autobiography, anecdotes and dramatised sketches.

The aim of his new show is to introduce Samuel Johnson, the poet, essayist, literary critic and lexicographer - "my hero" - and celebrate the tercentenary of his birth in 1709. A series of drawings and paintings are shown on screen to give us a picture of the man and his London society friends including, of course, James Boswell. Benson launches into what is essentially a lecture but this is no dry academic presentation. He is a born storyteller with an eloquent and engaging style of performance, enhanced by a pure Johnsonian wit of his own.

Dr Johnson had a "voracious capacity for knowledge," a talent certainly shared by Mr Benson, who enthrals us with his dedicated enthusiasm for the subject, delving into the Dictionary to find extraordinary definitions for words such as patron and rant - "high sounding language without proportional dignity of thought."

We hear a selection of quotations and recitations from biographies, stories and essays, with Benson switching voice and accent according to character. There are amusing descriptions of Johnson, (he wore a half burnt wig due to reading in bed by candlelight) as well as moving stories about his pecuniary situation, struggling to make a living while he painstakingly compiled his dictionary.

During the compact but comprehensive journey detailing his life, books and philosophical thought, it's utterly rewarding just listening to his rich Shakespearian style of language.  Benson's perfectly paced, poetic recitation of an extract from the Preface to the Dictionary -  "in sickness and in sorrow...in this gloom of solitude" -  is breathtaking, akin to Hamlet's soliloquy "To be or not to be."  This illuminating portrait of Dr. Johnson is an enchanting anniversary tribute - 70 minutes of inspiring, imaginative entertainment.

(P.S. Perhaps David Benson could present a sequel, " My Search for Boswell and Johnson: a journey to the Western Islands of Scotland" at the Fringe 2010, the 235th anniversary of the publication of Johnson's travelogue!).

Times: 22-31 August (not 26), 3.20pm.