Edinburgh International Festival: Alan Cumming on bringing Robert Burns back to life in his new dance show

He is one of the biggest stars taking to the stage in Edinburgh this month as its festivals return with a bang.

Alan Cumming is portraying Scotland's most celebrated poet, Robert Burns, in the new dance-theatre show Burn at the King's Theatre during the Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Jane Blarlow/PA Wire
Alan Cumming is portraying Scotland's most celebrated poet, Robert Burns, in the new dance-theatre show Burn at the King's Theatre during the Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Jane Blarlow/PA Wire

But Alan Cumming says the prospect of launching a new show in the city leaves him just as terrified as his debut nearly 40 years ago.

The Hollywood and Broadway star has turned years of research of the life of the Scottish cultural icon into a new dance-theatre production which is a centrepiece of the launch weekend of the Edinburgh International Festival.

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The origins of the show, which is at the King’s Theatre until 10 August, came from two different directions – a deepening interest in the life of Burns which he developed after reading a biography which explored his darker side, and a desire to keep performing dance after last appearing in Cabaret at the age of 50.

Alan Cumming is portraying Scotland's most celebrated poet, Robert Burns, in the new dance-theatre show Burn at the King's Theatre during the Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Jane Blarlow/PA Wire
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Perthshire-born Cumming, who has drawn inspiration from collections of letters penned by the 18th century poet, said: “Burns is all around us in Scotland and so much part of our lives that you just stop thinking about him.

"I started reading about Burns and gradually felt there was more there to him than the sort of biscuit tin image we have of him.

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“I spent years reading about him – I'm a bit of a Robert Burns expert now. I’m slightly obsessed.

"There was more of a fragility to him and he was more disturbed than people think. He talks a lot about him being afflicted and tormented. I just find him fascinating.”

Alan Cumming is portraying Scotland's most celebrated poet, Robert Burns, in the new dance-theatre show Burn at the King's Theatre during the Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Burn will explore Burns’ mental health, his troubled personal life and his financial struggles, despite the prolific talent and success.

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Cumming, who is now 57, said: “He is still all these things that we think of him and he was like a rock star of his time, but like a lot of rock stars there is a darker side to him.

"All these awful things happened to him. He had such a tough and tragic life – 10 years after his first big collection of poems was published he was dead.

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"One of the things I didn’t realise was that, as well as publishing his own work, he collected, collated and edited all these traditional Scottish songs that he didn’t write. We wouldn’t have them to sing now.”

Alan Cumming is portraying Scotland's most celebrated poet, Robert Burns, in the new dance-theatre show Burn at the King's Theatre during the Edinburgh International Festival. Picture: Jane Blarlow/PA Wire

Cumming’s roots in the festival city can be traced back to 1984 when he found fame with Forbes Masson as cabaret act Victor and Barry that the pair had formed while studying at the then Royal Scottish academy of Music and Drama two years earlier.

Their shows became a firm favourite for several years at the Fringe and would be the launchpad for Cumming’s career in film, TV and on stage, which saw him win Tony and Olivier award, and nominations for Emmy, Golden Globe and Grammy honours.

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Burn is a new solo piece which Cumming has created with Olivier award-winning choreographer Steven Hoggett and Edinburgh-born musician and composer Anna Meredith, another EIF favourite.

It is the latest in a series of festival appearances in the city since Cumming made a long-awaited return to the stage in Scotland in 2007 when he starred in The Bacchae at the King’s as part of the EIF.

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He said: “With things that I make myself, I tend to perform more and more on my own. I’ve always said that I really love my work and I really love the people I work with but I think actors en masse are kind of annoying.

"I don’t hang out with actors in my non-work life. They just talk about work all the time and it’s boring to me. It’s not like I don’t like actors but hanging out with a large group of them is not my favourite thing.

"The biggest arts festival in the world is in the capital city of your country just feels like a great place to be creative and challenge yourself.

"With all the things I’ve done at the festival it always feels like ‘holy shit, this is terrifying.’ With Victor and Barry the show was made up in our kitchen. We would walk on and not know if we would remember all the words of a song. You just get through it. We actually made a virtue of our failings and mistakes."

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Burn, which will be one of the last before the King’s Theatre is refurbished, will see Cumming reunited with the National Theatre of Scotland, which will take the production on tour around Scotland before a run at the Joyce Theater in New York City.

He said: “When I came back to do The Bacchae it was terrifying and this show is an insane thing to do. It is incredibly physically demanding for anyone, let alone someone who is nearly 60.

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“I feel that I’ve always wanted to be a dancer, which I’ve done quite a lot over the years, but never anything like this show.

“I was 50 when I finished Cabaret on Broadway the last time. It felt terrible that I wasn’t going to be that fit again and my body wasn’t going to be asked to do anything like that again.

"I wanted to do something else involving dance, although I didn’t have this show in mind at the time.

"I’m not a conventional dancer. I’m not good at doing it the same as anybody else. I can obviously move and dance but like the other things I do in my life I do it in my own way."

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