BY A strange twist of history, we live in an age when freedom of speech – or the right to offend – has suddenly, once again, become a huge political issue; and it’s therefore exactly the right moment to give some thought to the story of Thomas Aikenhead, a 19-year-old Edinburgh student of the 1690s who spoke many irreverent thoughts about religion around the streets and pubs of the city, and became the last man in Britain to be executed for blasphemy, in January 1697.
I Am Thomas | Rating: **** | Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
When the Lyceum and the National Theatre of Scotland first got together with inspired London-based company Told By An Idiot to create a show about Aikenhead, though, I doubt whether any of them could have wholly anticipated the rowdy, fun-packed, and yet deeply moving two-hour cabaret that has emerged from the process, in which different historical periods collide like drunks in the night, and the whole event fully lives up to its billing as a “brutal comedy with songs”.
On a stage with a crowned crest, that effortlessly doubles as court, prison and Cowgate pub, we see Thomas – played interchangeably by everyone in director Paul Hunter’s cast of eight – emerge in various layers of modern dress as an indie singer-songwriter around the pubs of Edinburgh, with a nice line in lyrics about the beauty of a universe that needs no miracles to explain it, and about his view that theology is “a rhapsody of ill-framed nonsense”; the show then passes briefly through a 1950s phase, as various old busybodies in tweeds play their role in denouncing Thomas.
Some of the imagery and cultural references that accompany this angry and allusive version of the story may irritate those who take it seriously. There’s a running commentary on events from a pair of football pundits, the show is essentially vague and slightly clichéd about the Scottish cultural backdrop of the story, and the decision to have Thomas played by everyone – while his great adversary, the Lord Advocate James Stewart, is played by Dominic Marsh in storming rock-star style – threatens to unbalance the whole show.
In the end, though, the heart and soul of this show is in the songs, created by poet Simon Armitage and performer/composer Iain Johnstone. Beautifully sung by the whole cast, these mighty ballads carry the weight, sadness, anger and beauty of Aikenhead’s story, even when other aspects of the show seem set to reduce it to a joke; and the final sequence is both beautiful and moving, as Aikenhead goes to his death on the gallows somewhere between Edinburgh and Leith, and his spirit soars off into the universe he glimpsed with such wonder, and so yearned to know and understand.
• Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 9 April; Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 16-20 April