IT’S 110 years since the writer and critic Edmund Gosse published his great memoir Father And Son; but to Nicholas Bone and Rob Drummond, the two Scottish-based theatre-makers who have created this new show inspired by Gosse’s work, the struggle it describes – between a profoundly religious father and an atheist son – is still a living thing, shaping their lives from day to day.
Our Fathers ****
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
Bone is the son of a Church of England bishop, whose father died a few years ago; Drummond’s father is a Church of Scotland minister, now retired. Yet neither Bone nor Drummond has been able to share his father’s faith; and so now – on a beautiful set by Karen Tennant that combines austere Methodist-style church architecture with glowing cases and tanks full of the scientific specimens that began to challenge faith in the 19th century – they act out both scenes from Gosse’s book, and conversations about faith that they might have had with their fathers, whose recorded voices we also hear.
And if Gosse’s book is subtitled “a study of two temperaments”, then the same might apply to Our Fathers. Bone is calm and reserved in his memories of his beloved father, who actually gave him a copy of Gosse’s book to read before his death; while Drummond is still – in an echo of one of his earlier shows – involved in a noisy full-scale wrestling-match with himself over the possible baptism of his baby son, and the question of whether he should finally confront his much-loved Dad with his own atheism.
If the show has a flaw, it lies in a slightly arch tendency to over-play the arguments about the show itself that emerge from these “two temperaments”, with Drummond constantly longing to play the son and seek advice from the audience, while Bone just wants to get on with telling Gosse’s story.
Yet in the end, what emerges is a fascinating 75-minute meditation that powerfully exposes – if it never quite confronts – two profound paradoxes about our complicated relationship with faith.
The first is the one about worship, about the moments when Drummond and Bone raise their voices together to sing an old hymn, unleashing a sense of community and wonder our secular world struggles to match.
And the second is the obvious truth that whether their sons can share their faith or not, the two men of God remembered here clearly made great fathers: inspiring, nurturing, loving, and very much beloved.
*Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until tonight, and on tour across Scotland until 18 November.