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Union Blues – Scottish Review of Books
by Joseph Farrell

Union Blues

May 26, 2014 | by Joseph Farrell

This mighty affair’ was the phrase Daniel Defoe used to describe the events which preceded and accompanied the approval of the Act of Union by the Scottish Parliament, and since he was in Edinburgh with a sackful of cash to help persuade legislative doubters or waverers, he should have known. Defoe is a character in Tim Barrow’s Union, but never uses that expression, being too shifty to allow himself such flights of rhetoric. He is a devious spy for the English court, a briber or corrupter, insinuating himself with the sly skills of his modern counterpart, the lobbyist, into the corridors, or at least into the howffs, of power.

But mighty the affair was, and if 2014 may see the end of the union, this play aims to examine the establishment of it in 1707. A massive, solid Union Jack, assembled like an outsize Lego construction, stands centre stage at the beginning. It’s clearly capable of being dismantled, although in the event not into the constituent flags or national colours but into a series of uprights, squares and angles. Upside down, it would be a sign of distress, but the contemporary distress of the union, this mightier affair, is hardly brought to the fore. Curiously the flag never makes any further appearance, although the temptation to use it as a metaphor by pulling it apart or binding it tightly together must have been strong. The refusal to do so and its disappearance after its initial visual dominance can be taken, generously, as a sign of the production team’s determination to remain disengaged or, less generously, as a symptom of a tentativeness which undermines the work. It is not a play which seeks metaphors to deal with the dilemmas of today. Any connection between views uttered in 1707 and those issued now is hardly coincidental or casual, but parallels in the issues under discussion then and now are left to emerge in the audience’s mind.

When the lighting with the colours of the British flag is dulled, the blocks originally used to make it up are spun round and video images played on them to represent the environments or locations in London and Edinburgh in which the action unfolds. Whatever reservations one may have about other aspects of the production, the staging unquestionably represents a triumph of the designer’s art. Andrzej Goulding is credited as designer/video artist, with Chris Davey and Tim Mascall as lighting designers, and whatever their individual input, their work produces masterly results. The flats become part of a mobile set which can be rolled round or reversed scene by scene to allow some new furnishing to come into view and some new video work to be played on them. That might sound gimmicky, but the effect is mesmerising, magnetic and magic. In the howff frequented by Edinburgh’s establishment as well as by whores and poets, images in the background suggest noggins of ale as well as piles of coins, not to mention torrential rain. It would appear that the extreme weather we are told results from climate change today had already afflicted Edinburgh in the eighteenth century. Every scene in Scotland’s capital is accompanied by monsoon weather that would have defied any attempt to dry the loch under the castle. The noise of rain falling or of rolling thunder and lightning would be sufficient to transform Edinburgh into the ‘blasted heath’ where Macbeth acted out his tragic end. Switch to the genteel salons of London and the climate outside is, presumably, more mild, and a twirl of the set is sufficient to make the low-life drinking tables and barrels give way to an elegant chaise longue or console table, while the frescoed images portrayed are of baroque ceilings, exotic drapes and framed works of art. If theatre is a collaborative venture, the work of the design team is here a ravishing, highly valued element.

Every playwright in the modern age who attempts historical work which is more than mere costume drama has to face decisions which his predecessors were spared. Those who wish their work to be seen as a play of ideas have to decide whether to treat serious subjects seriously, or conclude that modern audiences can best cope with serious subjects when presented in the guise of comedy or even farce. Dario Fo, as well as John McGrath and 7:84 and others, has extended the range of farce, so instead of the good old knockabout or light fun with adulterous clergymen, modern theatre-goes have been introduced to didactic farce, moralistic farce, philosophical farce and politically correct or incorrect farce. There is also Samuel Beckett’s tragic farce but that is another dimension. McGrath’s Border Warfare covers some of the same territory as Union, and he employed a variety of techniques and approaches, including broad comedy, while the late Hector MacMillan with The Rising felt able to reproduce history and one historical disaster without recourse to the mechanisms of comedy.

Tim Barrow seems to have been unable to make a clear choice between these two options, choosing each in turn. The switch in tone and approach between the first and second acts is so massive that if this script had been found in a bottle, it would have been reasonable to believe they were the work of two different writers. In the first half, Barrow has chosen the big, vulgar, coarse, rollicking epic style of the romp, of the sort customarily described now as ‘in yer face,’ although it would be advisable to move yer face smartly aside. There are no subtleties of tone to indicate a split between the standards of aristos and plebs, between the pub and the salon, between Scots and English, nor between the male and female of the species. They are all down-to-earth types, who quaff large quantities of alcohol, swear and curse, lack wit and express themselves with little originality. In London, the Duke of Marlborough, perhaps to conform to the stereotype of the bluff military man, blusters and bawls, but so too do the Lords Stair and Seafield in Edinburgh.

Too many scenes in the first act drift in the search for laughs using tired clichés or familiar lines. ‘Look what the cat dragged in,’ someone utters in reference to the Duke of Queensberry when he enters the howff, while later in the court of Queen Anne, a lord is told he would be ‘none the worst of a good hanging’, and maybe he would not, but this is not sharp or even original dialogue. Too frequently Barrow has to rely on the employment of the shamanic word ‘fucking’ to ensure that an unremarkable line gains some kind of pseudo-comic charge. The actors, most of whom have to play multiple roles, are driven to declaim rather than speak as the characters identify each other mechanically, or exchange pieces of information they must have known, all in the guise of dialogue.

In the final scene of the first act, the tone changes and five of the prominent lords in the Scottish Parliament, two on either side of the Presiding Officer, stand in a line up to address the audience directly. The Duke of Queensberry and Earl of Stair speak hypocritical words of false regret, wondering how Scotland could survive on its own, if it was not better to seek shelter in a stronger union, how the economy and industry would prosper and whether the country could weather the disaster visited on it by the Darien Expedition, while Lord Belhaven and the Duke of Hamilton deplore the impending end of nationhood, of self-reliance, of the loss of a culture and a history. Any connection with Project Fear or between the eighteenth-century Darien fiasco and the twenty-first-century RBS debacle is left to the audience to make.

This dramatic, serious tone is dominant in the second act. There are still some scenes of farce, as when Queensberry is found lying drunk on a sofa in the royal palace and goes on to sing a lewd lyric to the queen, but for most of this act the author’s voice is carried in a different key. Barrow handles serious dialogue with greater conviction and seems more at ease with himself when free of the need to go clowning. In consequence, this act proceeds with greater confidence and assurance, although it would have been none the worse for a good snip of the scissors.

The author prefers to observe events associated with the political developments, particularly in rainy Edinburgh, from the margins, while in London he focuses on the central characters. His main focus is provided by two writers, the poet Allan Ramsay and Daniel Defoe. Ramsay, played by a young actor, Josh Whitelaw, has other worries other than Scotland’s loss of nationhood, since he is in love with a whore, Grace, played skilfully by Sally Reid. Ramsay tries to interest her in Catullus, who may have been similarly enamoured of a prostitute, and wishes to idealise her as his muse, while she insists that she is no more than a street tart. She also emerges, somewhat heavily, as an image of Scotland, sold to any bidder, falling pregnant, undergoing an abortion in spite of Ramsay’s entreaties and finally dying of a bungled operation.

Defoe is no bystander, and Ifan Meredith endows him with repellent, viperish qualities, without ever making him a caricature. He links the two centres, but in the later London scenes, Barrow loses focus as he pursues an extraneous interest in the personal affairs of the unfortunate Queen Anne. Queensbury (a mainly harlequinesque performance by Liam Brennan) arrives in London as High Commissioner for Scotland, and in the meeting with the monarch, coaxes her to abandon tea in favour of whisky. His drunkenness is manifested by pub songs;hers by a long meandering account of her unhappy life, of her miserable marriage, of her multiple pregnancies, of the frustrations of her wedding night, which led her to flee the marital bed for the consolations offered by Sarah Churchill (Rebecca Palmer), whom she loved but who later abandoned her. Whatever the historical facts, she is a somewhat odd presence who seems at times to have wandered in from another drama. Part caricature who indulges in petty fastidiousness over the varieties of tea offered her, part domestic tyrant and then desolate woman disappointed with life, Irene Allan gives her successive moods credibility. Her pompous Master of House (Mark McDonnell) is ensnared and then jettisoned, but these incidents take us far away from the shenanigans of the Union and weaken the dramatic coherence of the work.

The essence of course is the distribution of the English gold for which Scottish lords were bought and sold, as Burns had it, and by the time Belhaven reads out the list of sums disbursed it is too late. The Duke of Hamilton (Andrew Vincent), having initially opposed Union accepts the bribe and fails to turn up for the vote, blaming the pangs of toothache. Tony Cownie turns in a fine performance as Walpole in England and an even better one as the guilt-ridden Lord Stair. Barrow’s final problem is to know how to bring his work to a conclusion so, as often happens, he has about three concluding scenes, where one would do. He goes off down a final cul de sac by introducing a guard called Campbell who is warned by the howff-keeper, whose name is MacDonald to go into hiding to avoid the mobs rioting against Union.

The ending suffers from Barrow’s tendency to overload his work, to go down too many by-ways. Director Mark Thomson would have done him a favour by cutting out some of the weaker scenes. As it is, the company end up with a play of some good moments and some good performances, but ultimately, with a strangely bloodless work and a disappointingly missed opportunity.


Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

Run ended

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