I AM THOMAS
Review by Mark Brown
On January 8, 1697 in Edinburgh a 20-year-old, vocally atheist student by the name of Thomas Aikenhead went to the gallows for blasphemy. He would be the last person executed for the crime in Britain.
Neglected by the popular imagination, the case is ripe for dramatisation. Indeed, in these days of widespread social media denunciations and knee-jerk campus “no platformings”, it seems that it is increasingly easy to become a heretic against all manner of secular doctrines.
This, one suspects, is one reason why I Am Thomas (a co-production between Told by an Idiot, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh) has one foot placed firmly in the 21st-century. Directed by Paul Hunter of Told by an Idiot, this self-proclaimed “brutal comedy with songs” feels very much like a work of classical modernism.
The lyrics, which are written by leading poet Simon Armitage, carry both a great emotional charge and a wry, satirical wit reminiscent of Sondheim. Likewise, Iain Johnstone’s music is, by turns, very touching and evocative of the hard-edged, politicised aesthetic of Brecht and Weill. The song in which a series of fire-and-brimstone pronouncements are followed by the chorus line “Our God above is a God of Love” is typical of the play’s pointed humour.
The cast, who are in fine singing voice to a woman and man, are engaged in the kind of highly physical ensemble playing that was the hallmark of French theatre master Jacques Lecoq (indeed, two of the actors, Myra McFadyen and John Cobb, trained in Lecoq’s techniques in Paris). All of which (Sondheim, Brecht, Weill, Lecoq) makes sense to a work which is, in the modernist style, collectively devised.
This method of theatre making is part of the show’s strength, but it is also its notable weakness. The production, with its charmingly makeshift set and costume designs, appears like a series of sketches knitted together.
This is fine when the sketches work. However, when they do not, as in the over-played use of the footballing cliches and mixed metaphors of Match of the Day, the piece loses both its sense of structure and its momentum.
More successful musically than dramatically, I Am Thomas is a bold theatrical experiment nevertheless. It is not a Dawkinsian assault on religion so much as a memorable critique of both oppressive theocracy and intellectual intolerance.
Touring until April 30. Details: toldbyanidiot.org
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on February 26, 2016
© Mark Brown