Dear Scotland – Review

Apr 29 2014 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩   Portrait of a mindset

Scottish National Portrait Gallery Thurs 24 April – Sat 3 May 2014

Dear Scotland,

You are a country of many fine actors, both young and old, a country with many ideas that have to be said and with many people who have the wit to say them.

Lesley Hart as Clementina Graham Stirling. Photo © Peter Dibdin

Lesley Hart as Clementina Graham Stirling. Photo © Peter Dibdin

But most of all, Scotland, you are a country with a national theatre that has the wisdom to find those people, those actors, those idea-makers and those writers, and create a stage on which their ideas may be articulated.

Such, then, is Dear Scotland. A sort of love poem from our national theatre – come at last with a piece of theatre which Edinburgh can call its own – to its audiences.

A poem which the theatre has, in all its without-walls philosophy, given the freedom to its contributors to create.

The theatre’s hand is there, of course. It was, after all, an NTS idea to ask writers to choose an image in the National Portrait Gallery – and then write a letter from the subject of that image to the Scottish nation today.

Actors then speak those letters, performing them as the voice of both the writer and the subject – a mediator who brings the ideas of the writer to life, puts them in the light of the subject’s picture – itself already an interpretation of their reality by an artist, and gives it to the audience to own.

Twenty writers are represented, twenty subjects and, as the images are visited in two tours (with two on an audio track), nine actors give voice.

In this year of referendum, it is unsurprising that several of these epistles speak of choice – more have the idea of choice as a framework and fewer speak directly of a choice between yes and no.

These monologues or epistles – call them what you will – stand firm in their own terms. But they speak all the louder and with more depth and meaning in the hands of these nine actors.

When Peter Arnott has Sir Walter Scott speak of his creation of the concepts behind the Scottish nation it is one thing. But when Lesley Hart burls into the room and begins to lambast her audience with those words then the whole experience of what he says becomes all the more real and relevant.

On the second tour when Hart speaks with the voice of a certain Clementina Stirling Graham of Duntrune, she gets right in among her audience. It’s as personal a performance as you could hope to get, as Linda McLean’s words draw an elegant metaphor of beekeeping, to question those who would be appear as friends but end up thieves.

Just around the corner, in Gallery Nine which gives a place to women of the 19th century who came out of the shadows and took a place in society in their own right, Anneika Rose had given Zinnie Harris’ words a big, challenging interpretation in the first tour.

“Making their words exciting and worth listening to.”

Anneika Rose returns as the voice of Muriel Spark, given words by Janice Galloway. Rose – who appeared in a frighteningly good production of the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie at the Fringe in 2009 – has Spark down perfectly.

Anneika Rose as Muriel Spark. Photo © Peter Dibdin

Anneika Rose as Muriel Spark. Photo © Peter Dibdin

She shows that it is not about physical resemblance – although Janice Burgos has done a great job in her almost invisible costume design throughout – but about finding the voice of your subject. More than that, though, it is about making their words exciting and worth listening to.

The real delights here, then, are the performances. Yes, Liz Lochhead’s overtly pro-yes poetry from Robert Burns is worth listening to. But when it is Ryan Fletcher fulminating and blasting away, then that just gets better.

The production is just packed with delights. Maureen Beattie’s bright gleaming eyes pin her audience down as both Robert Louise Stevenson and then poet Jackie Kay. Sally Reid, after her hugely complex, sensual, hard-as-nails, erotically charged and bitter portrayal of the  Unnamed Woman in Alexander Moffat’s Poets Pub, turns out a transcendent image of Chic Murray in the next tour.

Colin McCredie is the only actor really let down by his directors – Joe Douglas and Catrin Evens. His portrayal of James Boswell feels lost in the edge of a huge gallery, and there is little way to engage with Iain Finlay Macleod’s script. In fact, it is the only piece which feels like a script.

Contrast that with McCredie as the Queen – as written by Johnny McKnight. Far from going for some comic effect, McCredie hauls McKnight’s words right down to the same human level as exhibited in Carl Court’s 2012 snapshot portrait.

Only in the Gallery temporarily, as part of the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2013, Court’s is an astonishingly image of a rheumy-eyed elderly relative, lips pursed in a tight line of lippy, powder visible on her wrinkled skin. And McCredie’s is a fine, nuanced performance, as provocative as any on display.

So, Dear Scotland, if you wish to be challenged and provoked, to see fine, fine acting interpreting the thoughtful words of your contemporary writers, words put into the mouths of twenty iconic characters from your past and present, make you haste to see this all-too-brief production.

Running Time: 1 hr 30 mins (Tour A), 1 hr 20 mins (Tour B)
Scottish National Portrait Gallery
1 Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1JD
Thurs 24 April – Sat 3 May 2014 (no performances on Sundays or Wednesday 30th April).
Tour times: 7.30pm, 7.40pm, 7.50pm, 8.00pm, 8.10pm, 8.20pm, 8.30pm, 8.40pm, 8.50pm, 9.00pm.
Tickets from (And on the door on the night from 7pm.)

Spoiler alert!

The texts, images and cast list are to be available in a book published by Luath. But in the meantime, here is a table of the cast, writers, artists and subjects. If you want to be surprised in your tour, then stop reading now…

Dear Scotland: Who plays and writes whose painting of whom:
Tour A
Subject Performer Writer artist Online image
Robert Louis Stevenson Maureen Beattie A L Kennedy David Watson Stevenson Online image
The Cromartie Fool Ryan Fletcher David Greig Richard Waitt Online image
Michael Clark Michael Clark Ali Smith David Williams Online image
All of the portraits in Gallery 9 Anneika Rose Zinnie Harris Queen Victoria Online image
Sir Walter Scott Lesley Hart Peter Arnott Sir Henry Raeburn Online image
James Boswell Colin McCredie Iain Finlay Macleod George Willison Online image
Mary Queen of Scots Anne Lacey Louise Welsh Unknown Online image
Michael McGahey Benny Young Jackie Kay Maggi Hambling Online image
Anonymous woman in Poets’ Pub Sally Reid Jo Clifford Alexander Moffat Online image
Robert Bontine Cunningham Grahame Tunji Kasim James Robertson Sir Jacob Epstein Online image
Tour B
Muriel Spark Anneika Rose Janice Galloway Alexander Moffat Online image
The Queen Colin McCredie Johnny McKnight Carl Court Online image
Clementina Graham Stirling Lesley Hart Linda McLean Unknown Online image
Robert Burns Ryan Fletcher Liz Lochhead Alexander Nasmyth Online image
A bystander in Prince James receiving his son, Prince Henry, in front of the Palazzo del Re Tunji Kasim Nicola McCartney Paolo Monaldi, Pualacci and ‘Silvestri’ Online image
James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England and Ireland) Benny Young Iain Heggie Adrian Vanson Online image
Jackie Kay Maureen Beattie Rona Munro Michael Snowden Online image
The Oncologists The Oncologists Rob Drummond Ken Currie Online image
Chic Murray Sally Reid Stuart Hepburn Derek Gray Online image
Jimmy Reid Anne Lacey Hardeep Singh Kohli Kenny Hunter Online image


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