The production of Donald Smith’s Burns: Rough Cut was based on his novel, Between Ourselves that focussed on “... the pivotal crisis of Burns’ life and career – his stay in Edinburgh.” The crucial word here is ‘novel’.
There have been lots of television dramas recently about well loved artistes, showing the human being behind the mask. There is always a disclaimer at the start to say it is based on real events but that “... Some events have been created or changed".
In the case of these dramas, the stars involved have living relatives whose lives can feature as well so the producers have to tread a wary path to show what was true and what was fiction. Not so in history; nobody is alive to dispute.
Most Scots have their own idea about the life of Burns to a greater or lesser degree and Donald Smith has clearly done his research of the period. The programme warns it is “... an unfamiliar Burns for the 21st Century”, but I have to say I watched this performance with some ill-ease, unable to suspend my disbelief at this cynical, charmless version of Burns.
There was a scene where implicit sex with Clarinda was described, something that is truly in the writer’s imagination. With no real proof either way, that was maybe better left alone. No matter what he did, his charm and presence must have been evident but there was no sense of this. It is known that Burns was not prissy, that he was prone to illness but there was a scatological element that added little to the piece.
This work gave a lot of attention to Burns’ love of theatre, much more than the poems he was known for. This is fine, but the balance seemed wrong. There were imagined scenes, like a meeting with Deacon Brodie, yet no mention of the real event of Burn’s paying for the headstone at Robert Fergusson’s grave. He is seen decrying the anglification of Edinburgh yet most of the piece is written and performed in English – a missed opportunity to use Scots in an ideal context. The play premiered at the 2010 Fringe so maybe an international audience was in mind.
This is a play of imagined scenes in the life of a real man. It has modern sensibilities and is full of metaphorical language. There is a video element to the performance which should have set the tone. It was intimate, filmed in authentic settings like St James Square where he lodged and what looked like the inside of the Writer’s Museum. Just right.
At this point, Gavin Paul (Robert Burns), a pretty good look-alike, based on images available, was only seen from the chest or waist up. His garb looked in keeping with the period, but on stage he wore jeans and modern footwear with a ‘Jacobite’ shirt. Maybe this was a deliberate ploy to bring him to the ‘now’ but it seemed pointless.
The tickets for the show were sold as part of a Burns supper, the delicious and appropriate fare supplied by the warm and friendly Bistro staff at the Brunton, so the implication was that the show and the meal were simultaneous. An intimate setting may have worked better for this one man show, aside from the scatology while folk were eating of course, and would have allowed direct interaction with ‘Burns’ the way other actors have done to good effect.
The video screen returns at the end to the Burns memorial at the Calton Hill with Gavin Paul (Robert Burns) passing enigmatically as neither Burns nor ghost. A member of the audience commented at the end that it was “Different.” Maybe just not different enough.
Tuesday 25 January, Brunton Theatre, Musselburgh. Plays MacRobert in Stirling on Thursday 27 January