Edinburgh International Festival theatre review: Alan Cumming in Burn

Alan Cumming brings his blazing charisma to a 60-minute dance through the highs and lows of Robert Burns’ life

Alan Cumming in Burn.
Alan Cumming in Burn.

Burn, King’s Theatre ****

A rain-swept stage, a dark and thunderous sky, flashes of lightning. This is the prospect that greets the audience, as it enters the theatre for Alan Cumming’s new show about the life of Robert Burns; and its mixture of dreariness, drama and sheer brilliance - conjured up by a world-class team of sound, set and video designers - perfectly sets the tone for this unique take on the life of Scotland’s national poet, produced by the National Theatre of Scotland.

Articulated mainly through Burns’s own words (a little of his poetry, many of his letters), and through an extraordinary 60 minutes of solo dance conjured up for Cumming by choreographer and co-creator Steven Hoggett, to the music of award-winning singer-songwriter Anna Meredith, the show depends entirely on Cumming’s extraordinary ability to deliver the text to perfection, while sustaining a quality of movement as precise and perfectly-focussed as it is emotionally powerful; and he rises to the challenge in breathtaking style.

The play’s focus, throughout, is on Burns’s struggles with despair and ecstasy. On the huge screen at the back of the stage, the years flash by, from his birth in 1759 to his early death in 1796, as the show charts both the fragile mental health that led him from strange heights of exhilaration and romantic promiscuity to profound depression, and the grinding poverty he and his growing family experienced, as he tried to extract a living from a series of unpromising Ayrshire farms, while pursuing his passion for the none-too-lucrative craft of poetry.

The show might benefit, perhaps, from being lengthened slightly to include more of Burns’s finest poetry; as it stands, it probably works best for those already well acquainted with the sheer beauty of Ae Fond Kiss, the passionate humanity of A Man’s A Man For A’ That, or the explosive enlightenment energy and wit of Tam O’Shanter, since none of those poems features here.

Fully present, though, is one of the finest and most charismatic solo performers in the world today, here exploring whole new facets of his art. The show is called Burn for a reason, of course; there’s a sense of a creative flame that burned too intensely and all too briefly, 250 years ago. Now, though, it’s made to blaze again; by a performer and creator so fully alive to Burns’s genius and his significance in Scotland’s story, and a superb creative team so committed to that vision, that together they have made of his short life something strange, beautiful and powerful, and absolutely new. Joyce McMillan

Until 10 August.