Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh
Review by Mark Brown
In this, the year of Scotland’s independence referendum, it comes as little surprise that we have a major new play which takes as its subject the Treaty of Union of 1707. However, those who hoped that Tim Barrow’s Union would be a sturdy history play, doing for the union of the parliaments of England and Scotland what Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons did for the life of Thomas More, are likely to be sorely disappointed.
Shifting back and forth between Edinburgh and London, the drama alights, with vivid imagination, upon a panoply of important figures, including the Scottish Jacobite poet Allan Ramsay and his English counterpart, the Unionist author and spy Daniel Defoe. As it does so – spinning on two stage revolves, its scene changes evoked by ambitious, variably successful projections – it paints a picture of aristocratic corruption and decadence, north and south of the border, which would make a whore blush.
Indeed, whores (named, somewhat obviously, Grace and Favour) play a significant part in the drama. As the Duke of Queensberry (Liam Brennan, towering in the role of the foul-mouthed, lecherous boozer) and his cronies take bribes in the cause of union, the unfortunate young prostitutes become heavy-handed metaphors for the fate of Scotland itself.
Down in London, things are little better. Queen Anne (Irene Allan) is being driven mad by her childlessness, and run ragged by her lady-in-waiting (and lover), Sarah Churchill (Rebecca Palmer on tremendously cynical and louche form).
As history and politics collide in this busy and scabrous play, one wishes that director Mark Thomson had taken a dramaturgical scalpel to a script which, at a little under three hours, is too long by at least 30 minutes. Slowed down by elucidatory diversions (many of the drama’s speeches are thinly veiled historical explications), and hampered by the miscasting of young Josh Whitelaw (an undergraduate actor, thrown headlong into the deep end) as Ramsay, the production’s moments of thrilling boldness are overpowered by its increasingly uneven structure.
There will be voices for and against the drama’s perceived Scottish nationalist sympathies. Ultimately, however, Union should be remembered as a brave and brazen play which was sometimes impressive, often ungainly and constituted of parts that didn’t quite fit together. In those respects, some might say, it bears a striking resemblance to the Union of England and Scotland itself.
Until April 12. Tickets: 0131 248 4848; lyceum.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on March 26, 2014
© Mark Brown