Mary Woodward at the Festivals

Edinburgh International Festival: Burn, King’s Theatre, Review

EIF: Burn,

“The audience went wild”

**** (4 stars)

Well, this show certainly divides opinions!  Overheard on the bus coming away from it, a 92-year-old gentleman [he told his age to the people he was talking to] described it as ‘banal’ , said ‘he obviously couldn’t dance’ and suggested that it was prostituting one’s art to piggyback on the Burns name to present whatever one wished…. And I think the Guardian’s review [which I carefully didn’t read before seeing the show] gave it four stars and a fairly glowing headline…

I sit somewhere in between the two.  The four stars are because I give full credit to Alan Cumming at the age of 57 tackling a one-person dance show about one of the greatest Scots of all time: and hoorah! that he only used words written by Burns in letters and poems.  But oh dear: the manner in which they were presented was, for me, working against my understanding the words and what they were trying to convey.

Recent research suggests that Burns suffered from something akin to bipolar disorder – he was subject to deep glooms and extreme highs, and the words ‘hypochondria’ and ‘hypomania’ appeared at one point on the screen behind the stage.  It is suggested that some of what he wrote was his attempt to work through or come to terms with the depths of his depressions, when he couldn’t move, or think or communicate.  This perhaps was part of the reason for the flashing lights and over-loud synthesised sounds that punctuated calmer periods of the action: unfortunately they also served to distract almost totally from the words that were being spoken against them.  Maybe this was to underline the difficulty of communication when suffering?  It certainly didn’t serve the bard’s poetry – but was the show about the poetry anyway?

It would also, I think, have been hard for anyone who knew little or nothing about the poet to understand what was going on.  Back projection gave us dates, and farm names, and the odd photograph of a building, and at one point a poignant procession of names, presumably of those of his children who died while he was still alive.  Elegant shoes descending from the ceiling were the focus of his more energetic endeavours among the ladies and prompted some pretty bawdy descriptions of his progress with some of them.

And the dance.  Yes, Alan Cumming is not a trained dancer but it was nonetheless fascinating to see the control he has over limbs and core, and the balances he was able to maintain.  His movements were graceful and expressive – though at times repetitive – and showed that movement can often express how we feel when words fail us.

Alan’s commitment to the show is obvious.  At the end he came out in front to serenade us with a [spoken] verse of Auld Land Syne, when the huskiness in his voice spoke volumes about the effort he’d put into the hour he spent with us.

But is it Rabbie, or Alan, who will remain longer in our hearts and minds?  There were some clever tricks and a few excellent effects.  There was also the opportunity to hear the voice of Burns the man rather than the poet, as he struggled with all that life threw him – the disappointments he suffered; the constant need to write obsequious begging letters to persons of higher station in life than his; and the affliction of unsought and unthinkingly, arrogantly, English criticisms.  Maybe the outlandish /challenging – “contemporary” – vehicle in which Burns’ words were conveyed will make them linger longer in memory than if they had been packaged in the usual saccharine, reverential way?  Or will the man burn brighter in our minds because of what we have seen?

Time will tell.  I’m really glad I went.  The audience went wild at the end.  Come: decide for yourself.

EIF: Burn, King’s Theatre, runs until August 10th then Touring Scotland for tickets go to: Edinburgh International Festival | Edinburgh International Festival (


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