THERE’S nothing like a National Portrait Gallery for revealing a nation’s official view of itself.
Dear Scotland - National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
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Scotland’s gorgeous neo-Gothic gallery in Queen Street, Edinburgh, first opened in 1889, offers a dazzling range of monarchs and poets, aristocrats and beggars, showbiz stars and trade union leaders and now, as Scotland faces a defining moment of decision, the National Theatre of Scotland and the National Portrait Gallery have had the brilliant idea of inviting 20 of the country’s leading living writers to choose a portrait, and make it speak to us, through the voice of an actor.
So as evening shadows fall, the audience, in groups of ten or so, are led through the galleries, pausing before each speaking portrait or sculpted head. On Tour A – to be seen again on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday – we encounter Sir Walter Scott, Mary Queen of Scots and NUM leader Mick McGahey, among many others; on Tour B – tonight, Wednesday and Friday – it’s Robert Burns, Muriel Spark, Jimmy Reid and Her Majesty The Queen.
And given the sheer range of writers involved – from the novelist James Robertson to leading playwrights David Greig and Rona Munro, and Scotland’s Makar Liz Lochhead – it’s perhaps not surprising that the results are a shade uneven.
Some, like Lochhead’s angrily nationalist Robert Burns or Peter Arnott’s exasperatedly Unionist Walter Scott, speak to us directly of the referendum choice: Arnott’s vision of Sir Walter as the man who painstakingly built the cultural guarantees written into the present Union is both witty and hugely thoughtful.
Some reflect on the spirit in which we should approach the decision: Janice Galloway’s Muriel Spark reminds us that we “might as well think”, Jackie Kay’s proud Mick McGahey invites us in verse to be open to the world and Robert Louis Stevenson’s sweet spirit sings through AL Kennedy’s words, as he exhorts us to live more fully, and with joy, whichever direction we take. And some talk of other matters entirely: Rob Drummond’s response to the famous Ken Currie portrait Three Oncologists has the recorded voices of the men themselves, reflecting on their partnership.
The finest monologues, though, seem to be the ones that invite us to remember those who have often, historically, been edited out of the national picture. In Zinnie Harris’s monologue, actor Anneika Rose gives an electrifying voice to all the women of Gallery 9, a small side-room full of female faces.
Jo Clifford, with actor Sally Reid, creates a beautifully-made soliloquy for the naked woman in the background of Alexander Moffat’s famous painting Poet’s Pub. The dancer Michael Clark himself, in a recording, reads Ali Smith’s monologue about growing up gay – and obsessed with dance – in Aberdeenshire. And perhaps the most powerful moment of all comes when we encounter the wonderful Anne Lacey as Louise Welsh’s Mary Queen of Scots, both monarch and outsider, warning us, after her own shocking execution, never to believe that “they would not dare”.
There are moments, perhaps, when the audience might wish for a clearer line of thought running through the shows, a more sustained level of dramatic intensity. The overall effect, though, is so rich and strange – full of bursts of rhyme and flights of prose, obscenity and beauty, fierce polemic and quiet humour – that it’s difficult to argue with the decisions made by young co-directors Catrin Evans and Joe Douglas.
It seems unlikely that this show will help anyone decide how to vote, it’s too varied and unexpected for that. It reminds us, though, of how many ways there are of loving Scotland, of how Scotland, like every other nation, struggles to become a truly inclusive society and of the truth that after the referendum, Scotland will still be here, sharing a small island with a large neighbour – a fate that runs through our history like curse and inspiration, the piece of grit that, in good times and bad, helps us to produce some rare pearls of wisdom, genius and beauty.
Seen on 26.04.14