Director: Mark Thomson
Writer: Tim Barrow
Reviewer: Amy Taylor
The Act of Union and its many players are just one of the focuses of Tim Barrow’s Union, a new work that reveals just how Scotland became part of the United Kingdom in 1707. Directed by Mark Thomson, this new work showcases the talents of a united cast, but a strong beginning makes way for a meandering and disappointing second act.
Jumping between Edinburgh and London, Union follows the events that led up to the Act of Union through the experiences of local poet, Allan Ramsay (Josh Whitelaw) and the various members of Scotland’s parliament, and aristocracy, including the Duke of Queensberry (Liam Brennan) and Queen Anne (Irene Allen). But can a fractured country be truly united? And does Scotland have a price that Westminster is willing to pay?
Barrow’s long-awaited and much-anticipated portrayal of the events leading up to the 1707 act of union is both fortuitous and deliberate in its timing. As Scotland gears up to the final stages of the Independence referendum, all eyes are on the events taking place in both Holyrood and Westminster. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barrow’s play, while it is at great pains to remain neutral on the issue of independence, reveals an unequal country at a crossroads, as unease and suspicion, not just of the idea of unity, but also mistrust of the men in power, gives way to unrest and anger.
And this is one of the problems with Union; there are many parallels that can be drawn between 18th century Scotland and the country we inhabit now, but one of the most pressing and the most important is the issue of inequality, as the gap has widened between the rich and the poor significantly over the last decade. The contrasts between how the rich and the poor lived in 18th century Great Britain are obvious thanks to Andrzej Goulding’s rotating and innovative stage design, and Megan Baker’s costumes, but there is very little substance to the theme. This is a play about a country that was bought and sold for just a few thousand pounds by the very men that were meant to be acting in its best interests, so where is the anger about this? Where is the damning indictment of all the mistakes of the past? Union never delivers it, instead concentrating on relatively minor characters involved in the act of union, while getting lost in the misery of the eternal misery fractured mind of Queen Anne in the play’s meandering and overlong second act.
However, while Union’s focus may be somewhat flawed, the same cannot be said for its presentation. An exceptional cast, including Brennan as the debauched and duplicitous Duke of Queensberry are one of the true joys of this production. In particular, Allen shines in her somewhat limiting turn as the last of the Stuarts, damaged by successive stillbirths and miscarriages, while Ifan Meredith as English spy, Daniel Dafoe, brings just enough smooth sleaze to an already uneasy situation.
While the play has its faults, it’s still worth viewing, if only to enlighten and inform others of the mistakes of Scotland’s past and the uncertainty of its future.
Photograph: Laurence Winram