It’s that time of year when the supermarket shelves are groaning with haggis and writers are forever trying to find a new angle on Scotland’s national Bard. Given last year’s long overdue uprising of women against sex pests and patriarchy I dare say some bright sparks will set their sights on Rabbie this month given his well-documented enthusiasm for recreational sex. I’m not convinced that 18th century moralities or gender relations can be so easily transposed to our own time. Burns like all of us was flawed and, like all of us, was a product of his time.
This week my bigger concern will be plucking the words of Robert Burns out from the written page to bring them alive to a modern audience. And what could be better than giving Tam o’ Shanter a 21st century reboot.
Burns’s supernatural tale makes a fine blend with whisky-fuelled revelry. Tam o’ Shanter is the story of a married guy who gets blind drunk with his mates, has to get himself hame in the dark, but gets waylaid when he comes across what seems to be an orgy in a churchyard.
The Devil himself is laying down the tunes to work an illicit gathering of scantily-clad participants up into a seething sexual frenzy. Peeking Tam considers stripping off and joining in with the mirth and fun but gets so excitable he gives himself away.
There’s a final frantic chase through the countryside as Tam tries to escape the wrath of the witchy women. This is classic horror movie material infused with the spirit of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. The equivalent of a Hollywood car chase is thrown in at the end. It’s racy pacy stuff.
There are very few primary source records of how Robert Burns performed his poetry. One rare description has him disengaged, looking out of a window, as he delivers his verse to a refined Edinburgh audience. Given his reputation as a sparkling conversationalist, a theatrical entertainer with a gift for making people laugh, and for winding up the local worthies, it’s highly unlikely he’d have performed his work like this – nor heedrum hodrum, stiff or staid – when he was with his Ayrshire drinking cronies.
With that in mind, in cahoots with my long-term collaborators, musician Craig Lithgow and The Kixx Collective, we’ve tried to develop Tam o’ Shanter into a theatrical piece that’s dark, fierce, unsettling and sexual. In sync with Craig’s minor key melodies I prefer to snarl the lyrics, investing them with menace, rather than just recite them. There aren’t many laughs in the original text. The Kixx Collective dancers narrate the tale through dance and physical interaction, alternately adding to and breaking the tension of the piece. Whips and hot candle wax may appear. For many attendees of Burns Suppers it’s the first time they’ve seen the Bard’s work presented in this light. We try to make it an unforgettable experience.
Committing the words to memory, all 224 lines of the piece, was a fair old slog. But they are so vivid, visual and delicious, they eventually burn themselves into your subconscious. I’ve probably gone through Tam o’ Shanter in my head about a thousand times these past few years. Many times I’ve walked up or down Leith Walk, eyes glazed over, oblivious to the world, savouring Burns’s magisterial epic.
I’ve come to appreciate the poet’s technical virtuosity even more now I know it by heart. The narrative drama sweeps you along. I love the taste of the words, the undulating stresses, and the intonations as you speak them. They dance on your tongue and lips, reverberate in your mouth, taking on a life of their own. I love, too, exploring the spaces between the words.
On Burns Night we’ll perform Tam o’ Shanter in the atmospheric surrounds of the crypt of Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin to an invited audience of Scottish and Irish guests. Oor Makar, Jackie Kay, will be joining the Neu! Reekie! contingent. Then, on Saturday, we’ll be doing it all again in Edinburgh’s Summerhall at a Neu! Reekie! Alternative Burns Supper as part of the Burns Unbroke Festival.
Neu! Reekie! An Alternative Burns Night, Summerhall, Saturday, 7.30pm, www.burnsunbroke.co.uk