Nancy’s Philosopher

Aug 22 2019 | By More

★★★★☆  Polished and Impassioned

Scottish National Portrait Gallery (Venue 46): Mon 19 – Thurs 22 Aug 2019
Review by Irene Brown

Nancy’s Philosopher, the story of unfulfilled love between David Hume and society beauty Nancy Ord unearthed and written by David Black, was first performed at the fringe in 2016.

This year’s venue on the top floor of the SNPG, where Allan Ramsay’s portrait of David Hume hangs, seems especially fitting for this polished and impassioned one woman performance which was written specifically for its actress, Kelly Burke.

Kelly Burke in front of Ramsay’s portrait of Hume. Pic: National Galleries of Scotland

Burke opens her monologue with a date exactly 239 years ago that chimes with the evening’s performance. It is the date of the letter from her character Nancy Ord to one Angus McDonald explaining a significant period in her past.

This period was during the Scottish Enlightenment. Nancy Ord, a beautiful young Northumbrian woman with a ‘head full of learning’ who happened to be the daughter of the Chief Baron of the Scottish Exchequer, brought shame to her family and caused a scandal in Edinburgh’s high society by falling in love with a man more than twice her age. This man was Edinburgh philosopher David Hume, known as le bon David.

Dressed in discreetly elegant black and without the aid of any props, Burke gives a performance that relies purely on her impassioned rendering of the character. She stays fully in character throughout, engaging warmly with the audience without actually breaking the fourth wall.

rarefied world

Black’s research reveals Nancy’s full knowledge of the strata of society that she and Hume inhabited showing her to be someone at ease in that rarefied world of the Edinburgh intelligentsia where the great and the good all knew each other. She was a veritable belle of the ball but one who had read Voltaire in French (and a signed copy at that!) yet her considerable abilities were ignored because of her gender.

It is maybe no wonder that she sought succour with a much older intellectual man, whose house was a ‘discourse in polite living’, rather than with the young bucks who courted her.

The text is written in rich but cloaked language suitable to the time of the subject. It is rich on description on the likes of the contrast between the reeks of the Auld Toun and the relative rural idyll of Queen Street but glosses over anything sexual. That may of course be because, despite Nancy being clearly besotted with Hume, his words indicate that it was more of a deep cerebral friendship than a physical affair.

The very formal address of ‘Madam’ sits ill when used to a lover and although we are told that Hume viewed her with “impossible affection”, a phrase heavy with ambiguity, yet holding out a promise that she’d be ‘Mrs Hume yet’, there is a sense that she was projecting deluded dreams on to an unrealistic and unattainable relationship.

Black’s play comes full circle linking Nancy’s letter to a potential new partner Angus McDonald based on Hume’s last encouragement to her from his death bed that, likening life to a book, she should start a new chapter. A revelatory show.

Running time: One hour (no interval)
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 1 Queen Street, Edinburgh, EH2 1JD (Venue 46)
Monday 19 – Thursday 22 August 2019
Evenings: 6.30pm
Tickets and details:


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