Condensing the life story and the spirit of one of Scotland’s foremost poets and writers – and one of Scotland’s national treasures – Robert Burns, into a single hour of stage time is no mean feat. Burn from the National Theatre of Scotland, premiering at the Edinburgh International Festival and touring Scotland before setting sail for New York, endeavours to do just that.
The ingredients are as promising as the show’s base material. Alan Cumming could surely be described as another of Scotland’s national treasures, and Burn sees him collaborate with choreographer and theatrical magician, Steven Hoggett. The show crashes onto the stage amidst torrential rain, a fierce flash of lightning and a thunderous soundtrack from Anna Meredith. Cumming slinks into the spotlight, mischief in his eyes and proceeds to escort us through Burns’ life, beginning on a farm, scribbling his way through school, making his way as a poet, a lover, a father and – maybe the greatest revelation – a man with mental health issues that continue to persecute him throughout his life.
Billing itself as dance-theatre, the story is told through a combination of Burns’ own words, movement, video and sparingly elegant set design (Ana Inés Jabares Pita), woven into a largely coherent narrative. Cumming is a charismatic performer, infectiously enthusiastic about life’s fleshier pleasures but he’s at his most captivating in the moments of stillness when speaking passages from Burns’ letters. He captures Burns’ insecurities and torment with a searing honesty that is occasionally upstaged by the barrage of visual effects.
The production’s design is certainly stunning, closer in feel to a pop video than a traditional celebration of an 18th century wordsmith. Tim Lutkin‘s lights are strident and purposeful, especially when coupled with the barrage of imagery, text, animation and videography (Andrzej Goulding). While the visual effects are impressive, thanks in no small part to local magician Kevin Quantum, and the whole package makes for a spectacular show, the story ultimately suffers as the spectacle threatens to upstage the performer.
That said, there’s a moment at the end of the show that foists Cumming firmly back into the spotlight. It features maybe Burns’ best known poem and packs all the bells and whistles. We are invited to salute audacity, the stunning King’s Theatre and being together after two years of not – as well as never forgotten friends. That, in itself, is tingly beautiful theatrical magic.