Theatre review: A Satire of the Three Estates, Linlithgow

IF THERE is one golden rule in the world of Scottish theatre, it is never, ever to underestimate the range, the depth, the vividness, the significance or the staying power of Sir David Lindsay’s great mid-16th-century morality play, A Satire Of The Three Estates.

A Satire of the Three Estates

Linlithgow Palace Peel

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Although it was written partly for performance at the court of King James V, by a man who was a courtier as well as a poet, its political boldness is breathtaking. It challenges the corrupt power of the church, the landlords and the burgesses who run Scotland; and it imagines a new political settlement, in which John Commonweal – the Common Man – is admitted into parliament, while the wealthy are brought back under the rule of law, and the corrupt drummed out of office.

So now this mighty piece of early Renaissance political drama has been revived, in a new, complete five-hour text put together by a team of academics working with Historic Scotland; and it is being staged, this weekend, in the stunning outdoor setting of Linlithgow Palace Peel, with the great east wall of the palace standing against the sky as backdrop. The audience sits on the grass in a little, intimate oval arena ten yards across, with a main stage at the west end; and the frolics begin, as various cheerful vices set about tempting James Mackenzie’s wide-eyed young king away from the ways of wisdom, and into the arms of Ruth Milne’s gorgeous Lady Sensualitie.

In the course of its rich, long and playfully indulgent five hours, Lindsay’s play ranges from detailed contemporary social satire – full of long litanies of complaint about sharp trading and dodgy practices – to a kind of political and religious poetry that seems almost Miltonian in reach, as Tam Dean Burn’s mighty, winged Divine Correction enters the fray – flanked by Verity, Chastity and Good Counsel – to win the young king back to virtue.

Sometimes, Lindsay’s obsession with the burning need for religious reformation makes the play seem like a voice from another world; yet, seconds later, its complaints about an arrogant elite looting the nation’s wealth – superbly spoken by Keith Fleming as John Commonweal – seem as if they could have been written yesterday.

And although Greg Thompson’s production is clad in traditional mediaeval costume, and sometimes seems a shade under-rehearsed as the 40-strong cast busk their way through the vast text, in the end there’s no denying the passion and understanding with which this all-star company of Scottish actors – including a live band, led by musical director John Kielty – seem to have taken the full political meaning of the play to their hearts, and made it their own.

For in the end, in whatever form, The Three Estates remains what it always was: a play about good governance written in and for Scotland, but so powerful in its understanding of what good governance is, that it transcends not only the five centuries since Lindsay was born, but also the place where it was made, to take its place in the canon of great European drama about the spirit of political reform itself – a spirit that is still with us today, wherever power is abused and the ordinary citizen excluded from the councils of state.