I Am Thomas. Je Suis Charlie. Black Lives Matter. Sometimes an injustice can start a movement that resonates much further than imagined.
The story of 17th century Scottish blasphemer Thomas Aikenhead has light shine upon it after hundreds of years in this exciting new production from the National Theatre of Scotland, Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre and touring company Told By an Idiot (in association with our E&P).
Described as ‘a brutal comedy with songs’ (including a rousing and profane scene-setter acknowledging no-one knows Aikenhead’s sorry fate), this energetic, edgy and imaginative tale is a joyously anachronistic, spirited examination of freedom of speech and independent thought – and perhaps a poignant reminder we can never take it for granted.
I may be wrong but if Told By an Idiot have been allowed to run rampant on such a large scale in this city before, I wasn’t informed; not just regarding the classy-looking, yet simplistic backdrop of a set, of rich oak panels and bannisters representing everything from a ship’s hull to a modern-day courtroom, but in the sheer depth and breadth of the message in their characteristically off-the-wall brand of storytelling.
The last time I saw this company was at the Unity with the fairly bonkers And the Horse You Rode in On, back in 2011. It threw a lot of quirky business at the wall – including a German interpretation of Are You Being Served – and although wildly intriguing, not everything stuck.
This production showed a maturity, a vision, a sense of theatricality and musicality that since then has quite strikingly fulfilled that potential.
I Am Thomas unearths the story of a figure practically lost to history, Thomas Aikenhead, a 21-year-old student who was the last person executed for blasphemy in Scotland (1697).
The Restoration era meets Private Eye’s Colemanballs meets 70s glam to create a mind-boggling melting pot of theatrical ideas that probably shouldn’t work, but really do. With lyrics by poet Simon Armitage (last seen in this parish collaborating on Odyssey: Missing Presumed Dead), dialogue is in turns witty, solemn, and ultimately incredibly moving.
The company is quite extraordinarily talented, not least of all the one cast member who may seem to be playing more of a supportive role, John Pfumojena, whose beautiful voice alone was enough to move me and my +1 to tears. Dominic Marsh also impressed, having already proved his worth as a devilish Macheath in the Everyman’s Dead Dog in a Suitcase.
The wonderfully diverse cast, completed by John Cobb, Charlie Folorusho, Amanda Hadingue, Iain Johnstone, Myra McFadyn and Hannah McPake, all take their turns to play Thomas. There’s so much going on, yet under the direction of Paul Hunter there is a clarity to the storytelling that bores right through to the heart and soul.
Something like the art house Bob Dylan movie I’m Not There meeting some kind of bizarro world, subversive, pub lounge Jesus Christ Superstar (there’s a sentence no-one thought they’d ever read) this show has a passion and conviction that leaves you with a knot in the pit of your stomach.
There is a huge political message running through I Am Thomas – that doesn’t need pointing out; but, to keep things political on another level, it quite wonderfully demonstrates how the company you one day see pulling together some punky curiosity in a small black box space might soon move on to be forces to be reckoned with on a national level. And works like this are a powerful reminder of the value – and necessity – of the arts.