First published in The Times, Monday August 22 2016
The prospect of a second co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and the New York-based Theatre of the Emerging Moment (TEAM) is mouth-watering. Their first collaborative piece, Architecting, which drew on characters from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind to show how history is constructed through popular culture, won awards at the fringe in 2008.
Mitchell makes a cameo appearance in this new work, commissioned and co-produced by the Edinburgh International Festival. In a show that explores and draws lines between aspects of Scottish and American history and folklore, Scarlett O’Hara’s creator is cited as a fan of Sir Walter Scott. Brian (Brian Ferguson), an exiled Scot living in London, claims the romantic novelist single-handedly invented the enduring romantic image of Caledonia. His best pal Iain (Sandy Grierson) is less generous in his assessment: “He was a dick.”
The show, devised and written by the cast of three alongside Rachel Chavkin, the director, and associate director Davey Anderson, is full of such irreverent valuations of the events, myths and perceptions that inform individual or national identity. In the framing narrative Brian and Iain are given the opportunity to view their country through a stranger’s eyes when they encounter Red (Jessica Almasy), a tourist from West Virginia taking a break from her husband and son, and embark on a road trip around Scotland.
En route, everything from Brexit and the Scottish independence referendum to Culloden, the Highland Clearances and the Jacobite Uprisings is raised, and in some cases, re-enacted. As the two Scots playfully invoke stereotypes and discuss “calibrating their Scottishness”, Red gamely joins in. “If Dirty Dancing were Scottish it would end when they put Baby in the corner,” she says.
There are plenty such amusing lines, and the action is enlivened by Scottish and Appalachian folk music played live by an all-female trio. Yet, the two-hour show never amounts to the sum of its parts, with the simple, appealing premise evaporating when the action relocates to West Virginia and replaces characterisation and any semblance of drama with mere pyrotechnics. With so little shape or resolution the huge jumble of ideas and references here, the piece increasingly rings hollow. A missed opportunity.