The story goes that in November 1786 the Scottish poet Robert Burns borrowed a pony and left his native Ayrshire for Edinburgh. Burns’ Edinburgh is a dark, soulless bed of artless commercialism, a maze of grim roads, brutal drawing rooms and eating clubs. The Scottish bard, much like his contemporary William Wordsworth, seems unable to look at cities without an unshakeable misanthrope. In
A powerful hour which throws one head-first into the mind of tortured genius.
Based on Donald Smith’s controversial novel Between Ourselves, the piece charts in great personal detail Burns’ unending conflict with publishers and businessmen of the Edinburgh gentry, his love affairs, his physical maladies, his passions and his artistic process. In this one man show, we are introduced to the many voices within and without the poet’s head.
His work in this period, which comes with great difficulty, along with his literary correspondence with a muse, seem to be his only escape from an environment too constrictive for a poet. Though we sit opposite him, it is clear that the room we are in is as much a representation of his mental state as he struggles to escape this restriction.
The performance being in Edinburgh is rendered all the more significant in view of its exposition of the poet’s yearning to represent the true voice of the people of Scotland as separate from that of the Edinburgh elite, who greedily fill their pockets with the fruits of his labour. Publisher William Creech (‘more leach than Creech’) pushes the poet to publish the ‘Edinburgh Edition’ of his works yet refuses to pay the poet, and demands, much to Burns’ fury, ‘a glossary of Scotch words’. The poet rails against this suggestion that rural Scotsmen must ‘apologise for our language’ and refuses that poetry should prop up the rich and the powerful, promising that ‘his voice shall give the people’s voice a hearing’. This is a crucial question which sits at the heart of what art, and indeed the Fringe itself really is, what it should or shouldn’t be and who it really serves.
Gavin Paul ensnares the audience in a powerful, overwhelming grip as he shifts schizophrenically between rancorous sarcasm, manic excitement and hermetic melancholy. Paul’s proficiency for using subtle changes in his voice and physicality to powerfully convey emotion is undeniable. Gripping moments of rage are placed next to touching moments of fragility, where Burns’ physical or mental health is at breaking point. Minimalistic flashes of lighting demarcate the poet’s different moods, identities and adventures. In a one man show full of often abstruse lyricism, one may find themselves losing attention. However, listening to the sheer musicality of the poetry recited, or laughing at Burns’ hysterically imaginative insults, or admiring his description of sex, often needs no context to be enjoyed. A powerful hour which throws one head-first into the mind of tortured genius.