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It Wisnae Me

at Traverse Theatre

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Alan Bissett takes on the thorny issue of Scotland’s colonial history

Image of It Wisnae Me

Scotland’s colonial past comes under scrutiny in Alan Bissett’s new play and, as the title suggests, it’s not a past the country would readily admit to. Slavery, racism, exploitation, appropriation – this isn’t the Burns ‘n’ Braveheart mythology we’re often fed, and Bissett’s intention is that Scotland doesn’t escape complicity for her own nefarious deeds. There’s a dark past to contend with; the Scots version of the Shaggy excuse willnae wash.

Heavy though that sounds, it doesn’t stop It Wisnae Me being a pacy, engaging hour. It’s full of sharp, accessible sketches that peel back and reveal the play’s messages, often with humour to help the medicine go down. Our lead characters are a heavily caricatured Scotsman and Englishman, who we’re introduced to via an homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey. These two grunting and squabbling cavemen “evolve” into their national stereotypes after discovering a See You Jimmy hat and a bowler. They’re still squabbling and metaphorically grunting at each other by the end of our journey.

England’s wickedness is a given from the off, aided by Andrew John Tait‘s cool, haughty take on the character. He belts out Rule Britannia like Rees-Mogg at a Trafalgar commemoration and casts snooty glances in Scotland’s direction – when he’s not nicking the can of oil that Scotland discovered, or clearing Scotland off his estate, that is. Scotland, played equally satisfyingly by Ali Watt, is a trackie top wearing jakey, whose simplicity is designed to convince us of his guilelessness – an honest soul who couldn’t do serious wrong.

Scotland good, England bad isn’t the play here, though; the purpose is to show that Scotland can and has done wrong. Bissett zones in on the contradictions in the Scottish national psyche – on how the “Wha’s Like Us?” backslapping national pride sits with more serious introspection, and in particular Scotland’s dual identity of oppressed and oppressor.

The former is a well-worn and comfortable jacket for Scotland to slip into, as simple as wagging the finger at the Auld Enemy over the border. More than one scene seeks to catalogue the rightful and well-rehearsed grievances Scotland has with its neighbour. Oppressor, on the other hand – that’s an item of clothing kept at the back of Scotland’s closet, a hairshirt Bissett makes a case for donning. In one scene, Scotland plays the grasping sidekick eager to get his mitts on the sweet-tasting sugar and sweet-smelling tobacco England has found. In another, he’s found on a golf course talking to England of a slave girl (Danielle Jam) as if she’s an object. The key scenes are a criminal interrogation in which a squirming and uncooperative Scotland is confronted with the charges levelled against it. Tait paces round Scotland’s chair, pausing to bellow the crimes of colonialism into the country’s face, while Scottish greybeards like Tom Devine and Alasdair Gray act as witnesses for the prosecution and defence via recordings. It’s a stylish treatment of a thorny issue, and makes for very effective theatre.

It is only in danger of overstretching itself. This subject matter is epic in scope, and makes for a hell of a lot to pack into a lunchtime. In fact, it’s a wonder it covers as much as it does as succinctly as it does. You could accuse it of abbreviating, but not of oversimplifying.

Inevitably though, the constrictions needed to fit this vast scope into an hour only results in more questions. For instance, is there only one Scotland? Bissett has used our poor trackie-wearer to represent Scotland across centuries, Scots both old and new, both rich and poor. The character is spoken of as a schizophrenic, one man full of conflict and contradiction. Is the problem here not actually one of split identity, but rather that Scotland has multiple separate identities? We’re given only one, a stereotypical one, that has to stand in for everything. Where can new Scots see themselves in this figure, for instance? Why are they to atone for colonial crimes?

And what of class? This is a jakey (his words) being interrogated by the police. The effect is of a young offender being charged with a minor misdemeanour. Yet, the crimes of colonialism are akin to white collar crime – ruthless, calculating, systematic. That can’t be conveyed by a character that feels more like a shoplifter. It needs a suit in the dock. The play recognises there’s an issue here – at one point, Scotland is led away by a policeman to be shown all the Glasgow streets named after slave traders and beneficiaries thereof. Scotland answers back about the suffering of her own poor. It begins to skirt the issue, but there isn’t time to satisfactorily explore it in full.

In yet another scene, Jam, playing Black Girl (a placeholding name chosen advisedly as part of the plot) educates Scotland on the slave trade using graphic pictures to bring the point home. She then turns to the “white people” in the audience with an accusatory tone. It’s Black History Month, why do we still need educating about the slave trade? Well, that rather presumes that we do. It’s unlikely anyone here isn’t already aware of the horrors of slavery, or the culpability of this country (whether that be Britain or Scotland) in perpetrating those crimes. The division that’s likely to exist is over how we respond to that. Some would say reparations are still due, from all white Scots, who are all beneficiaries of their country’s past crimes. Some would say that, of course, it is shameful history which should be learnt from, but that to hold all the white Scots of today responsible for crimes committed by a cadre of rich white men many centuries ago is madness. That’s the more pertinent issue, and there’s no space within the play to properly discuss.

The fact that these unanswered questions bubble up is, of course, testament to the provocative nature of It Wisnae Me. It can’t address everything, but it’s ambitious to try, and something would be lost by trying to restrict its breadth. There’s meat in the play as well as the pie today.