Before last weekend’s SNP conference, the last time I had been to the theatre was to see a musical adaptation of Neil Munro’s Para Handy Tales. Needless to say, it was “chust sublime”. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the sneak preview of the new Alan Bissett play performed before Alex Salmond’s speech in Aberdeen on Saturday.
Called The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant, it struggled to live up to its title – despite Bissett’s intention, uttered in all seriousness, to produce “one of the best Scottish plays of all time”.
Playing to a sense of grievance and infused with chippiness, it seemed an odd choice of entertainment at a gathering of a party which in recent years has taken pains to promote itself as paragon of grown-up, civic nationalism that embraces a “social union” with the rest of the UK.
But as the cast laid into Bissett’s targets (Britishness, the Great War commemoration, the Royal Family, the London Olympics and the accents of BBC announcers), the SNP faithful applauded heartily, rising for a noisy standing ovation at the end. Devised as a satire on the No campaign, the play takes the form of some of Scotland’s mythological creatures (banshee, selkie etc) discussing how to dissuade Scotland from voting for independence.
It was the banshee who suggested the best way would be to appeal to the Scots sense of “servitude” by marking the 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. “Remind them of their duty – that it is Scotland’s destiny to provide glorious sacrifice to Britain’s military power, forever.”
Bissett’s notion of Scotland as an oppressed nation was also in evidence in his attempt to lampoon the No campaign’s Project Fear: “They have been bred as a nation to feel inferior in their status to their southern counterparts. All we need to do is exploit these insecurities.”
Plucked out of thin air, and then ridiculed, was the idea that No campaigners believe independence supporters are anti-English.
“Don’t give me all that guff about redistributing wealth, getting rid of Trident or improving democracy, you just want to round the English up into gulags and force them to eat porridge and read the poetry of William McGonagall.”
Bissett’s black-and-white view of Scotland as a force for good and Britain as quite the opposite might go down well at the SNP conference. But how will it be viewed by the public at large.
Happily, the theatre-going public will have the chance to make up their own minds at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival as the play is to run at the Assembly Rooms through most of July and August, courtesy of £17,000 raised through the Yes movement.