when putting any historical figure on stage—let alone a writer and thinker of
the calibre of Dr Samuel Johnson—is that using their own words makes them
appear less a dramatic character and more a walking, talking Wikiquote. Writer
James Runcie attempts to work with this, by having the story told by Johnson’s “biographer”
James Boswell and initially using the infamous Johnson quotes as theatrical
shorthand to set up their situation. Nevertheless, by first emphasising the
dictionary compiler as the barrel-chested embodiment of certain negative
attitudes, most notably regarding Scotland, Runcie’s script means Lewis Howden
has to work hard to convince us that his Johnson is actually a three
dimensional person behind that singularly one-dimensional bluster. That Howden
also appears to be channelling Robbie Coltrane’s caricature of Johnson in
real theatrical meat to bite into
Boswell—intent on convincing his mentor that “the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees” ISN’T necessarily “the high road that leads him to England”—takes Johnson on a tour of Scotland and, in particular, the Highlands and Western Isles. With barely an hour’s running time, the play necessarily speeds through much of their journey, the verisimilitude of their depravations reduced to broad comedic effect. Johnson is painted initially as the clichéd English traveller abroad, who believes that “Everyone understands English if you speak loudly enough.” Yet, by dribs and drabs, the script does offer Howden and Simon Donaldson—a somewhat taut Boswell—real theatrical meat to bite into. “If you are so proud of Scotland, why do you live in London?” Dr Johnson asks at one point: whether its scripted or a decision by director Marilyn Imrie, Boswell’s response—that he wants “the best of both worlds”—seems deliberately undercut by self-doubt.
For, whatever the laughs to be had in seeing this iconic Englishman in tartan drag or giving a hospitable woman the wrong idea about his intentions, Dr Johnson Goes To Scotland can’t help but come across as a post- (possibly pre-) Independence Referendum discussion of Scotland’s long-fractious relationship with its larger southern neighbour. “You make defeat sound romantic,” Johnson says to one of his hosts, increasingly confounded—as a self-identified Englishman—by the apparent willingness of the Scottish people to subsume themselves into a larger “nation”. And yet, the play also appears to accept that, while a dictionary can define a country or a language, it can’t define a people; inevitably, we all resist definition.
Thanks to the play’s understandable emphasis on Johnson and Boswell, the obvious lack of quality roles for its two female cast is at least compensated for by their quantity—between them, Gerda Stevenson and Morna Young play 16 different characters, including the men’s two horses! When not landing some really funny moments, the pair provide some real emotional punch with their singing and musicianship. When Johnson says that “The melody can overpower the sense,” few in the audience are likely to disagree.