Tam O’Shanter

21 Aug 2012 in Dance & Drama, Highland, Showcase

Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, 19 August 2012, and touring

TO DESCRIBE  a production based on the songs and poetry of Robert Burns as being especially Scottish may seem redundant.

AFTER all, that is only what you would expect with a figure who has become synonymous with the national identity. There is tartan, there are Highland games and there is the bard from Ayrshire. As Gerry Mulgrew’s witty script points out, “Burns the brand” is a cornerstone of the country’s marketing strategy.

Communicado's Tam O'Shanter (photo Douglas Robertson)

Communicado's Tam O'Shanter (photo Douglas Robertson)

So, yes, of course, this Communicado production, first seen at Perth Theatre in 2009 and now revived for a run on the Edinburgh Fringe and a four-week tour, inevitably has a strong Scottish flavour. The language of Burns and the additional rhyming script by Mulgrew is rich in the nation’s distinctive vocabulary.

But the Scottishness goes further than this. In form and style, this is a production that could only have come from this part of the world. Mulgrew’s most obvious model is the ceilidh. This Tam O’Shanter is not so much a play as a series of turns – a song, a poem, a dramatic interlude, a spot of shadow puppetry, one after the other. It’s as if a community has gathered in the pub to make its own entertainment for the night. The mood is communal and celebratory.

That in itself is a characteristic of a key strand of Scottish theatre, one with which Mulgrew is closely associated. The style of performance in Tam O’Shanter is democratic, communal and direct. Instead of hiding behind an imaginary fourth wall, the actors invite us to share in their story, to join in with their playfulness. Theirs is an actor-centred approach that creates special effects from their own ingenuity and resourcefulness. They trust the imagination of the audience.

In other words, this Tam O’Shanter is a very Scottish treatment of very Scottish material. Form and content are as one.

That explains why it has been one of the more popular shows on the Edinburgh Fringe and why it is likely to go down well on its dates at Eden Court, Inverness (28 & 29 August). Tuning in to Burns’ own subversive spirit, it is earthy, exuberant and fun. This is not the safely packaged heritage-industry poet, but a Burns who is vibrant and irreverent with a love of sex and a distrust of authority.

If there’s a downside, it is that central tale of Tam O’Shanter, the drunken husband who stumbles across a party of dancing devils, takes a long time to get going and then still longer to get into gear. There’s a lot of other material here too. The production is a kind of Burns cabaret, going off at many tangents, rather than a conventional drama with a single governing story. If you can accept that, you will have the pleasure of a multi-talented 11-strong cast, a brilliant live score by Jon Beales and an inventive sense of theatricality by Gerry Mulgrew.

© Mark Fisher, 2012