A 20th century American academic, Ms Weinstein, is on a mission in the UK. She is here, all the way from Chicago, to find out more about the great Englishman, Samuel Johnson. But his trail leads her to Scotland, specifically to Auchinleck Estate, which was home to his friend and confidante, James Boswell. In this lofty and ambitious production, MHK Productions & Rhymes With Purple, have brought to life the character of Boswell. And they have brilliantly succeeded.
As Ms Weinstein delves into the mountain of diaries, notes and journals she finds at the estate, she must introspect. Her landlady, Fiona, married into the descendant of the Boswell family. The two women butt heads, as Fiona is convinced of the merits of Boswell, while Ms Weinstein only sees him as a means to the end – Samuel Johnson. With time, Boswell’s writing, his honest and candid portrayal of his friend weaves its magic. In particular, the focus is on Johnson’s visit to Scotland at the behest of his friend. Boswell writes not only of their conversations, his own philandering, but also paints an intimate portrait of his senior friend. His works have been described as one of the finest biographies in the English language.
Ms Weinstein is operating within the constraints of modern academia – research has limited funding, must stick to scope, and has deadlines. But despite that, a fire rises in her, to explore and navigate Boswell’s world. She is egged on by Fiona. The acting is excellent – both actors playing Boswell and Johnson do a fine job. Marie Kohler’s writing is sublime, as are the costumes. In particular, Boswell’s wife, Margaret, has got on an amazing outfit reminiscent of the times. The set is clever, especially using a digital backdrop to aid the navigation of those who are unfamiliar with Scottish geography.
Some historical inaccuracies must be forgiven – the matter of Boswell’s descendants, where he lived in Edinburgh, when the papers were found, and how. But suspend an overthinking mind, and this is a fine work of historical theatre. The fact that a lot of the action occurred centuries ago, but not far at all from where the performance is at at Lawnmarket makes it quite special.