Review – Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner

Oct 18 2013 | By More

✭✭✭✭✩  Splendid reconstruction

Summerhal: Thurs 17 – Sat 26 Oct 2013
Review by Thom Dibdin

Brilliant in its conception and meticulous in its construction, Untitled Projects’ reconstruction of Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner could have been made to play Summerhall.

Part exhibition, part illustrated lecture, part multimedia event and all theatre, this NTS co-production toys with the boundaries of truth, narrative and storytelling in performance.

George Anton. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

George Anton. Photo: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

The original novel by James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner to give it its full name, has a glorious complexity to it.

Not least of these is its use of the unreliable narrator – a device which was beyond modern for the time of its publication in 1824. And as it pursues its double narrative using a found text, it has a propensity for the gothic in its satirical examination of religious fanaticism.

It’s part crime fiction, part historical memoir, and it deals with deep philosophical questions concerning God’s “elect” who they believe are predestined to go to heaven. Which means, the novel’s protagonist comes to believe, that nothing he does can be a mortal sin – even if he murders that can’t be wrong but a justified sin.

A truly fascinating text, then, but one which has had few attempts to bring it to the stage. Mark Thomson directed his own adaptation at the Royal Lyceum in 2009 – a re-worked revival of the production he staged at the Brunton in 1998. And while Ian Rankin has a film adaptation in his back pocket, he says that is unlikely ever to get made.

Which is what makes Untitled Projects’ uncovering of the remaining fragments of Paul Bright’s late 80s attempts to bring the novel to the stage so intriguing.

Artefacts surrounding the six-part production which Bright produced over three years are displayed in Summerhall’s basement galleries and shown to the audience in a tantalising glimpse before the main event.

An ancient interview on BBC Scotland’s NB arts programme

This was the pre-digital age so there is no vimeo of the whole production – just a super-8 film of a student happening in Glasgow, crumpled production shots, the odd flyer and poster, underlined copies of the novel used as a script, an ancient interview on BBC Scotland’s NB arts programme and an effusively glowing review by Keith Bruce in the Glasgow Herald.

Crumpled production shots from part 1 of Paul Bright's production. Photo: Thom Dibdin

Crumpled production shots from part 1 of Paul Bright’s production. Photo: Thom Dibdin

The main event sees 2,000 Acres of Sky actor George Anton, who played the central character Robert Wringhim, narrate his own version of the events surrounding Bright’s production. On screen are interviews with the likes of actress Alison Peebles and directors Giles Havergal and Tim Crouch, remembering their associations with the director.

But it is Anton’s own brief friendship with Bright which provides the central narrative – augmented by a narrative created from the box of mementoes sent to him on Bright’s death in 2010: tapes, videos and more flyers and even a courtroom artist’s pictures from the ill-fated production of Trials (the central part of the novel) which failed so spectacularly and at such inordinate length at the EIF in 1989.

In his own narrative, written by Pamela Carter and under Stewart Laing’s precise direction, Anton brings just the right amount of ego and eccentricity as he introduces anecdotes of his own life over the years before he met Bright – the eye-opening revelation when he was eight that acting is just lying and getting away with it – and then the move to ITV’s Piece of Cake which caused their split.

Other productions of Confessions have focussed on the nature of evil in the character Gil-Martin, who Hogg is equivocal in portraying as either the embodiment of the Devil who persuades Robert Wringhim to commit murder – or Wringhim’s own alter-ego.

Untitled Projects’ version is an examination of the nature of truth and existence – a metafiction that is concerned with the transitory nature of theatre itself. It is beautifully detailed, right down to the last crease, in its creation of a piece of theatre which, over the course of the evening, becomes more real than the productions which made Glasgow hum around the time of the City of Culture.

An audacious, satisfying project and well worth returning to revisit the exhibition, which is open for another half hour after the end of George Anton’s lecture.

Running time 2hrs 10mins
Thurs 17 – Sat 26 October 2013 Daily (Not Mon 21) 7.30pm; Sat 19  matinee 2.30pm.
Summerhall, 1 Summerhall, Edinburgh, EH9 1PL
Details on the Summerhall website:


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