Alan Cumming in “Burn.” Photograph by Tommy Ga Ken Wan

Poetry and Pain

Alan Cumming's take on iconic Scottish poet Robert Burns

Performance
Alan Cumming's “Burn”
Place
Edinburgh International Festival, Theatre Royal, Glasgow, August 31 ,2022
Words
Lorna Irvine

Alan Cumming has never been one for half measures—whether taking on the iconic Emcee in “Cabaret” in 1993, garnering him a Tony award, Dionysus in a gospel tinged version of “The Bacchae,” or portraying every single role in his much acclaimed, raw and visceral one man Macbeth in 2012 (an absolute triumph of ambition and ideas.)

So it makes sense, following that wilfully experimental trajectory, that he should take on another iconoclastic part, the role of troubled Scottish poet, Robert Burns, in a slice of dance theatre, requiring solo choreography. Steven Hoggett and Vicki Manderson have collaborated with Cumming here in providing dance techniques—a first for the 57 year old actor and writer who claims to “lack co-ordination,” and ahead of rehearsals, jokingly asked the National Theatre of Scotland’s artistic director Jackie Wylie in an interview, “Do you know any good chiropractors?!”

The raison d’etre, Cumming stated, was to demystify Burns, and show the madness and struggle behind the oft-sanitised romantic visions of Scotland’s much feted, ill-fated, national poet. In essence, Cumming wanted to eschew the soft-focus, biscuit tin imagery and create something richer and more complex.

Gorgeously staged, it’s undoubtedly lovely to behold:  the scenography by Ana Jabares-Pita is inspired, as layers can be piled on top of the eerie skeletal backdrop, like the shoes of ladies he seduced floating down in a delicate distraction from work and marriage, and a ghostly white shift dress covered in notes serving as visual metaphor for another betrayal. Meanwhile, Andrzej Goulding’s video projections of galloping white horses and melting ink on paper as Burns’ mental health deteriorates reinforce the fever dreamlike quality.

Alan Cumming in “Burn.” Photograph by Tommy Ga Ken Wan

It’s often insightful too, with an articulate voice I often find lacking in some of Burns’ poetry (William Blake for me wins each time) and there’s a thoughtfulness regarding his place in the world—an overarching sense of imposter syndrome. The most moving moment arises with Frances Dunlop, once an ally, now gone,  in the aforementioned dress scene.

Elsewhere, there’s no shortage of wit: he bows, scrapes and genuflects to patrons in a parodic whirl, as electronic composer Anna Meredith’s score throbs and pulses like a racing heart.  He postures against a mountainous backdrop, a la heritage art, in a frock coat with a raised eyebrow, drawing attention to the limitations of such preening poses. His back is arched, his hands claw the air and he struts around like a peacock lacking humility-hedonistic, arrogant and virile—he’s a narcissist and an asshole, stewing in his own self-regard.

Alan Cumming in “Burn.” Photograph by Tommy Ga Ken Wan

Yet, above all, there’s a general lack of fluidity throughout. Scenes feel stitched together as opposed to happening organically. A fragmentary, non-linear approach still needs consistency to sustain it. While Cumming makes an attractive, roguish, sometimes impish poet (the very epitome of unreliable narrator) the choreography which anchors the central conceit veers from gestural, to clunkily expositional, to a rather cringe-inducing sequence where Cumming performs a dance that is part 90s boyband, part warehouse raver, part Highland Fling. This is simply not satisfying enough—nor does the characterisation feel developed beyond the well known archetypes of noble ploughman, to struggling poet, to womaniser, to tortured solitary writer, eyes wild and writhing like a wounded animal on the floor. A slogan reading “Hypomania” feels superfluous and somewhat on the nose.

His stamina and presence is unquestionably impressive, and he’s always a compelling and seductive performer whatever he takes on, but for theatre which requires so much dancing,and a performer who aims to eschew the tropes of touristy Scotland, there are some bizarre choices indeed.  It’s not a failure by any means, but far from the blazing success it could have been. A real pity—I wanted so much more, and Cumming is capable of far better things.

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