Almost never in the process of writing a review will the city one saw the show in potentially secede from a Union the following day. But it draws attention to the tremendous uncertainty, excitement and complex period of exchange that has powered the Scottish Referendum campaign: a two-year (and longer) battle, the energy from which Graham McLaren has attempted to channel into a twelve-hour cultural celebration at Assembly Hall the night before. Performers and writers took to the stage to recite great Scots poems, extracts from novels, speeches and plays, accompanied by an eight-piece band jamming along to folk tunes and ballads.
It all sounds like a massive party. And that’s what it should have been. The triumph of productions like David Greig’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Heart and the newly minted Village Pub Theatre have owed success to the small-scale community spirit that energises spectators. At Assembly, it all feels a bit static and mechanical, as audiences are herded into the main hall throughout the day (from midday to midnight, the whole event is divided into four 150-minute instalments). There’s no reason why this couldn’t have been orchestrated across a cluster of pubs in the West End, or Leith, or up and down Rose Street. Wherever.
The Scottish elite, from Peter Arnott, David Greig and Cora Bissett to Tam Dean Burn, Kieran Hurley and Liz Lochhead each present their vision of a poetic and brilliant Scotland. Everything from The Crow Road to The Proclaimers makes an appearance in some guise or another throughout the marathon open-mic. But there’s something sickly self-congratulatory about it all; only in rare moments are there heartfelt exchanges instead of schmaltz. There could have been umpteen ways to attract audiences who wouldn’t ordinarily come to Assembly Hall: often an intimidating venue for anyone uninitiated. It wasn’t all artists and industry folk who showed up, but it felt like a pat-on-the-back for the Yes campaign, many of whom (but not all) who performed on the night supported.
Individually, there are some outstanding performances. A hilarious recital of The Gruffalo counterbalanced by a poignant speech from one of the Glasgow Girls straddles silliness and sobriety to signal the beauty of this project. But it feels like 99% of the effort has gone into the stiff curation of the event, as clearly, it must have taken a huge effort to pull together. It’s as if McLaren has asked each performer to come up with their own idea and then calculated when to have a funny bit and when to have a music bit. Although spontaneity is sought after, it feels as regimented as a military march.
Credit to anyone who blasted through all four instalments, and this is important to get a real feel for the entire event, but the greater achievement is in finding conversations and offshoots throughout the day rather than brute-forcing your way through the whole thing. If this had been facilitated further (more bands outside, more pop-up stalls, more… presence) the night could have rollicked into the early hours. And if Scotland had become independent, how would you have wanted to remember your only eve?