Big, bold and buxom; playwright Tim Barrow’s Union, directed for the Royal Lyceum Theatre’s artistic director Mark Thomson, starts as it means to go on, with blocks of “scenery”designed by video artist Andrzej Goulding bedecked with his faded, worn representation of the Union Flag. Such projections are one of the constants of this particular production, often startling in their simple symbolism; and, yet equally distracting –not least that glitch in the “rain”that stutters at regular intervals whenever its used.
Time and again, Barrow grasps for the artistic heights by borrowing the words of classical poets, before falling back on getting laughs from posh people swearing.
Which is apt, in one sense; for this play judders from one dramatic tone to the next, attempting to balance personal tragedy with bawdy humour and national politics with cock-jokes. Time and again, Barrow grasps for the artistic heights by borrowing the words of classical poets, before falling back on getting laughs from posh people swearing – a technique that would have made even Ben Elton blush while scripting Blackadder.
The story behind the surprisingly shaky Union of the Scottish and English Parliaments under one flag in 1707 is a subject obviously now laden with real significance given how its future will be decided by this September’s referendum. Apparently, Barrow’s original motivation to write the play three years ago was when he realised how little he knew of this historic event, and he was subsequently inspired by the larger-than-life characters he discovered while doing his research; from the whoring Duke of Queensberry, leader of the Scottish negotiators, to the laudanum-addicted Queen Anne. Oh, and one Daniel Defoe; still years away from making his name with Robinson Crusoe and earning a meagre crust as a spy and messenger striding between the English Establishment in London and the pro-Union Scottish nobility.
Barrow rightly recognised that the history of this Union would make a great story; it’s just not one he does justice, and a host of bright, yet-finely judged performances from the likes of Liam Brennan, Tony Cownie and Ifan Meredith do little to cover the play’s lack of focus, especially in its over-long and meandering second half. Nor can Barrow seem to resist the clichéof bringing the high and low of Scottish culture together in a pub of the Royal Mile, or assuming that every woman –even the Queen herself –is a prostitute of one kind or another.
Talking of which, the supposed emotional heart of the piece is the ultimately doomed romance (so clichéd, that’s not even a spoiler) between the wigmaker, poet and pamphleteer Allan Ramsay (a stunning performance, albeit for all the wrong reasons, from Josh Whitelaw) and the prostitute Grace (a sadly underused Sally Reid). It’s clear that Barrow hopes to compare and contrast their all-too-human story with the wider political shenanigans between the English and Scottish political elites actually could be.
Union has its plus points, of course; Barrow’s sense of language is fruity and lively; the production is easy on the eye, and there are moments of dazzling energy and real delight for the audience. Yet there are also too many longueurs when you lose interest, and begin to think of the opportunities the writer missed. Which is never a good sign.