Tuesday 3 May 2016

I am Thomas

To Wilton's, the atmospheric setting for I am Thomas, 'a brutal comedy with songs' performed by the theatre troupe Told by an Idiot. It's based on a true event I'd never heard of: the execution for blasphemy of a young Edinburgh student, Thomas Aikenhead (1676-1697) the last man to meet such a fate, at least in Britain. Here's the Guardian review.

The songs (with lyrics by the poet Simon Armitage) were mostly wonderful and performed by a hugely talented ensemble of eight, including the composer Iain Johnstone. I especially admired 'Damned if you do and damned if you don't', which pretty much summed up Aikenhead's awful plight. A special mention to John Pfumojena, a Zimbabwean actor and singer with an astonishing and haunting falsetto voice.

The production was visually quite brilliant, the stage becoming variously the sea, a court room, an Edinburgh bar, a prison and so on. Theatrical curtains tumbled down glamorously to set each scene, and this was especially effective in this venue, a dilapidated former music hall and the last of its kind. The sound of a gallows being constructed punctuated the play at odd moments throughout the evening. 

It was an enjoyably ramshackle production consisting of a series of Brecht-meets-Blackadder skits, some of which hit the mark, others of which were overextended and sometimes baffling. That Aikenhead was executed for a first offence at a time when such a harsh penalty was visited only upon repeat offenders was worth serious consideration but instead we got a laboured and unamusing Match of the Day parody in which football pundits in sheepskin coats talked us through Aikenhead's trial and execution in a chortling approximation of the bollocks football pundits usually spout.

At one point during the second half a banner was unfurled on which were represented a cohort of comic book heroes called the Justice League. Not musclebound Marvel superheroes (no doubt for copyright reasons) but something more homely - the kind of British equivalents found in mid-century D.C. Thompson comics. The characters were, if I remember correctly, named Suffra-Jet, Crimson Crusader, Strong Arm, Miss Right, and Davey Lynch (a cowboy, with a nod to the director of Blue Velvet). This was one of several moments in the show when the audience was overwhelmed with multiple signifiers and left floundering, if briefly. Audio clips of well-known lines from movies such as The Godfather, Jaws and Life of Brian added to the mix but further muddied the waters. Aikenhead's story sometimes disappeared in a flurry of conflicting tropes. Ingenuity can sometimes be counter-productive.

This exemplified a problem with some contemporary theatre and opera that I've noticed over the past few years - conceptual overload. Just as in Pinter one often wants to turn the meaning up (as it were), and just as in Stoppard (say) the urge is to do the opposite in order to reduce the erudite torrent, I felt at times during I am Thomas that I needed some kind of switch to do both.

The production had many more hits than misses, and the misses were near-misses. The boys done good, as I expect the faux soccer pundits would say. There were some good-humoured pokes at Harry Lauder-style Scottish culture, in-jokes about the footballer Archie Gemmill and the 1970s pop group Bay City Rollers (and there was a consistent reference to the 70s for no reason I could fathom). Underlying it all, and movingly,  was a sense of solidarity with Aikenhead, who was portrayed at different times by each member of the cast, turn and turn about. We are all Thomas, just as we were all Charlie. Or Spartacus, come to that. This was the best thing about the show, at a time when zealot theocracy challenges Enlightenment values. Our values.

The audience went wild at the curtain call - whooping and stamping their feet - a standing ovation throughout the hall. This came as a slight surprise as it seemed to me the crowd that night were unusually quiet and unresponsive during the show. But perhaps I'm as inept at judging an audience as I am at criticising plays. The venue was recently refurbished but retains a wonderfully labyrinthine  dilapidation, and is worth a visit in its own right. Website here.

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