EDINBURGH | GLASGOW | ABERDEEN | INVERNESS | DUNDEE | PERTH

The Tree of Knowledge

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Darkly funny and tragically reflective look at how two men have shaped our culture, economy and potentially our future.

Image of The Tree of Knowledge

Showing @ Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat 24 Dec

As austerity measures continue to bite and unemployment statistics make headlines, it becomes easier to focus on the present and much harder to step back and reflect on the events that led us here. The ideologies and greed that have gotten out of hand in recent years derive from the philosophies of David Hume and Adam Smith who worked and lived throughout the 18th century. What would they make of us now? Jo Clifford attempts to answer this in a darkly funny and tragically reflective look at how two men, three hundred years ago have shaped our culture, economy and potentially our future.

Hume (Gerry Mulgrew) and Smith (Neil McKinven) find themselves awake and alive in paradise; or more specifically, the 21st century. They meet Eve (Joanna Tope) who introduces them to a 9-5 reality and living-for-the-weekend mentality that has been embraced in the last fifty years. Between clubs, factories and iphones, the free-market has taken off, and as Hume and Smith will ultimately learn, has exploited the lives of many for the benefit of few.

Jo Clifford’s play was commissioned by the Traverse for the tercentenary of Hume’s birth. Against Ali Maclaurin’s cement-grey set, video (courtesy of Tim Reid) aids lighting and sound to give suggestion of various locations, many within Eve’s memories. The production is strikingly reminiscent of Ben Harrison’s work with Grid Iron – quirky Brechtian elements are introduced in the direction without relying heavily on them – the focus is Clifford’s dense and engrossing script.

As the play progresses, Hume and Smith find themselves arguing for reason, liberation and tenderness – all of which have manifested in such a way neither of them could ever have imagined. As Eve guides Hume through the workings of a production line in a factory, he remarks “I do not consider this activity fit for human beings”. What seems a simple comment marks quite a significant point in the journey of Hume: it becomes clear that instead of liberating people and allowing them to trade for mutual advantage, the free-market has become a repressive system that stifles creativity. This is a refreshing and intense piece of theatre that should be welcomed across the Western world. It’s good to reflect, but to affect change we also need to think outside of convention. It’s what Hume, Smith and Clifford have all done.