Review – Confessions of a Justified Sinner

Oct 18 2009 | By More

Royal Lyceum
Review by Thom Dibdin

SCOTLAND’S darkest history is dragged into the light of the Lyceum stage in this new adaptation of James Hogg’s bitter, twisted and murderous Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

This is a tale of religious fanaticism, of cleansing the world of sinners in the name of God. Using God’s name to justify murder would sit with horrifying ease in a modern setting but this is Scotland in 1704 and the fanatics are not al-Qaeda, but Calvinists.

Robert Wringhim is one of God’s elect. The young man, already twisted in his views by his uptight mother and her confessor, the Reverend Wringhim, becomes obsessed by the idea. As his place in heaven is guaranteed, he feels he can commit any sin he likes.

In a quirk of the plot which brings both Jekyll and Hyde and the story of Faust to mind, Robert has a friend, Gil-Martin, whom only he can see.

Gil-Martin provides him with all the bad logic he needs to go to Edinburgh to seek out his estranged father (an excellent Lewis Howden) and his hedonistic half-brother (John Kielty).

The heady mix of murder, madness, ghosts and bigotry – all underpinned by the Calvinists’ unhealthy attitude to sexual passions – is told with remarkable clarity, given the denseness of the original.

This is down to a strong mix of good writing from director/adapter Mark Thomson and excellent performances from his actors. They are helped by a versatile rotating set of huge monoliths which allows the action to move briskly from scene to scene.

Ryan Fletcher is excellent as Robert, sometimes stepping out of the action to narrate it from the sidelines but always there to meet up with Iain Robertson as Gil-Martin. He pitches his performance perfectly to convey a weak man, easily led and without any pleasure in his life.

Robertson has an excellent edge of menace and mostly keeps the narrative clear – although you have to keep sharp when Gil- Martin takes on the shape of other characters in the play.

It is Kern Falconer who gives the production’s towering performance, however, as Reverend Wringhim. He perfectly encapsulates the guilt and arrogance of the preacher, while Rae Hendrie portrays the closed, joyless life of Robert’s mother.

As a whole the production suffers only slightly as an adaptation – the novel makes excellent use of Edinburgh as a setting in a way which is not possible or necessary on the stage.

As recompense, it is able to convey the story in a much more open and accessible manner. It might be dark, brooding stuff at heart, but there are laughs too.

This is a challenging piece of theatre, but one which exposes a historical truth and finds a relevance for it today.
Run ends November 7, 2009
Box Office: 0131 248 4848

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