I Am Thomas
Seen at Liverpool Playhouse;
playing Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, March 23 to April 9
and Eden Court, Inverness, April 12-16
Reviewed by Mark Brown
On January 8, 1697 Thomas Aikenhead, an outspoken, atheist student, was hanged in Edinburgh for blasphemy. He would be the last person in Britain to be executed for such a crime.
It is an event that has many resonances in the modern world, perhaps most obviously in the appalling “justice” of ISIS and the theocratic executions carried out by UK ally Saudi Arabia.
However, I Am Thomas, the self-proclaimed “brutal comedy with songs”, suggests that Aikenhead’s story has echoes that are somewhat closer to home. A co-production between London-based theatre company Told by an Idiot, the National Theatre of Scotland and the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, this collectively devised piece is set as resolutely in the 21st-century as in the late-17th.
The show is directed by Paul Hunter of Told by an Idiot, with excellent lyrics by poet Simon Armitage and outstanding music by Iain Johnstone of Edinburgh-based theatre company Wee Stories. Bold, energetic and sharply satirical, it has shades of the musicals of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, on the one hand, and Stephen Sondheim, on the other.
It is remorseless in its contempt for the Lord Advocate, Sir James Stewart; the Presbyterian zealot who prosecuted the case against Aikenhead. Yet, as the superb ensemble flit in and out of characters and centuries, this rumbustious play seems to warn against a new age of intellectual intolerance in which being offended is reason enough to call for all manner of bans and restrictions on freedom of speech.
There is, as one might expect of a show in which Told by an Idiot and Iain Johnstone are involved, a tremendous sense of avant-garde experimentation. It is not only the Brechtian dimension that gives the piece a decidedly European feel.
Dispensing with the “fourth wall” between performers and audience entirely, the actors play, individually and collectively, as if, like ensemble members Myra McFadyen and John Cobb, they had all been trained in the highly-stylised physical techniques of French theatre master Jacques Lecoq.
However, despite its embarrassment of theatrical riches, the piece speaks at times to the dangers of collective theatre making. Some weak ideas (such as the repetition of a not very funny Match of the Day skit, which follows Aikenhead’s trial as if it were a football match) break the work’s momentum, leaving one frustrated that a very decent evening’s theatre is not the great one it could have been.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on March 13, 2016
© Mark Brown