Alan Cumming reveals how his Robert Burns dance show will explore the poet's darker side

Hollywood and Broadway star Alan Cumming has revealed that a major new dance show he is creating inspired by the life of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most celebrated romantic poet, will tackle his poor treatment of women and how his darker side has been “sanitised.”

Alan Cumming was interviewed at his home in the United States for BBC Scotland's Shelf Isolation programme. Picture: IWC/BBC Scotland
Alan Cumming was interviewed at his home in the United States for BBC Scotland's Shelf Isolation programme. Picture: IWC/BBC Scotland

Perthshire-born Cumming, who has admitted he is “terrified” about bringing the new show to the Edinburgh Festival in 2021, says he was drawn to the 18th century Ayrshire writer’s double life.

The dance production is expected to highlight how the reality of Burns’ tangled personal life was a sharp contrast to the image of the revered wordsmith, whose most popular works include Ae Fond Kiss and A Red, Red Rose.

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However he had fathered 12 offspring by four different women by the time he died at the age of 37.

Cumming who is currently based in the United States, says the show will address what it is to “be Scottish, to be male and how you deal with desire.”

The dance show is expected to be the latest new stage production to be launched by Cumming in Scotland following the success of his starring roles in The Bacchae and Macbeth in 2007 and 2012.

Speaking on BBC Scotland’s Shelf Isolation programme, Cumming said: “I’m going to be doing this project next year which is based on Robert Burns.

“It is a dance piece. I’m making my solo dance debut. It’s trying to find out more about the real life of Burns and this idea of being a man, being Scottish and how you deal with desire. I’m horrified and terrified, but it’s my own fault. I obviously agreed to do it. I find him utterly fascinating.

“One of the things that I’m really excited about and really drew me to it was the seeming dichotomy between him being this man who was very egalitarian and spoke about the need for women’s rights in 1792, so he was well ahead of the game in that way.

“Yet in his own life, in his personal life, he did not treat women very well. It is fascinating how we have dealt with that, how in some ways we have maybe biscuit-tinned him and sanitised him, and roughed off the edges.”

Cumming revealed that as part of his research for the project he had been reading a controversial biography, The Life of Robert Burns, by the Glaswegian writer Catherine Carswell, who upset traditionalists and received death threats for her depiction of the poet after it came out in 1930.

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Cumming added: “In this biography, she (Carswell) is almost aware that she is going to get some grief if she takes too feminist a stance.

“I guess so many biographies of great men are written by men. It is just so refreshing, especially in terms of the project I’m going to be doing.”

Meanwhile Cumming has also revealed that he is writing a new autobiography on how Hollywood “saved” his life and he suffered from a breakdown and the collapse of his marriage. It will be a follow-up to his acclaimed book, Not My Father’s Son, which tackled the trauma of growing up with a violent father.

He said: “The new book is a sort of memoir about my life since I’ve come to America, recovering from things and learning from the past.

“Hollywood called, I went off and did these things which really saved me. I got a chance to breath, be away from the situation I was in and get myself together.”

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