This performance is set amongst, and inspired by, two current exhibitions at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery by two Scottish artists: Graham Fagan’s The Slaves Lament and Douglas Gordon’s Black Burns. In the last decade, Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade has come to light and continues to be investigated by historians. Tonight features Sally Beamish’s new setting of Burns’ The Slave’s Lament with a live performance by reggae singer Ghetto Priest and the Scottish Ensemble; both appear in the video installation of Fagan’s art work.
The mood is established from the outset with countertenor, David James, singing The Slave’s Lament from the gallery above. The audience is left to listen and look at John Flaxman’s statue of Robert Burns, 1824, along with Gordon’s exact replica, in black marble, smashed to pieces lying on the floor of the gallery’s Great Hall. The evening continues with stunning performances from all, including Ae Fond Kiss by Scottish bass Brian Bannatyne-Scott, who sings O wert thou in the cauld blast and McPherson’s Farewell, both composed by Shostakovich. Songs are interspersed with Jackie Kay’s recently written poems about Burns, available in a new publication documenting both exhibitions, available in the gallery shop. Kay smiles out at the audience, repeating the refrain, “Had We Never”, prompting the audience to think about the fact that Burns himself almost travelled to Jamaica to work on a slave plantation.
The penultimate song of the evening is My Heart’s in the Highlands composed by Arvo Part, who had to learn Burns’ poems while at school in Estonia. He wrote the piece especially for James, whose performance is mesmerizing and haunting. The thought-provoking, poignant atmosphere is lifted when, for the final piece, Bannatyne-Scott sings A Man’s A Man. Feelings of hope and positivity are tangible as the audience smile throughout and the rest of the evening’s performers join in with the final chorus. A fitting end and tribute to Burns, a man who believed in equality, as he towers tall above the audience in white but a broken man in black.