History repeating itself
This article is from 2010.
There is a moment in Alistair Beaton’s new play that creates a collective audible intake of breath from its audience. It is the point where Paul Higgins’ deluded huckster of a banker announces that his private corporation is now bigger than the state itself. Those few who had not spotted Caledonia's metaphor about our current state could be left in no doubt from that point on. The collapse that proceeds from this is just as inevitable as the one that has recently transpired in the offstage world.
Higgins plays William Paterson, creator of the Bank of England, who, on his return to Scotland in the 1690s proposed an expedition to the Isthmus of Panama. Paterson claimed that by digging a road from one ocean to the other he would create a colony that would make vast fortunes for its Scottish shareholders. This misbegotten venture would land Scotland in debt for generations, and alter its political landscape for centuries. The play maps the journey of Paterson, whose frequent recourses to financial trickery and can-kicking nationalism led him to the swampy midden in which so much of Scotland’s wealth and human endeavour was squandered.
Anthony Neilson’s production for the NTS plays like a big, hairy rambunctious school play on steroids. There’s a good deal of singing and dancing in front of Peter McKintosh’s wooden scaffold set, with the unmissable grim ironies of a country enamoured of financial speculation always to the fore. There are some wonderful performances, with Paul Blair’s overblown, hypocritical Presbyterian minister and Tam Dean Burn’s drunken sea captain particular highlights, in a generally strong cast. The dark, moving final spectacle of thousands of paper chits, symbolising both the debts incurred and the lives these debts cost is especially affecting. The NTS is to be congratulated on taking on the subject of the play, which many other companies have shown a want of courage in avoiding, and if there are a few rough edges in the delivery of a couple of the songs, the pure gusto of the piece makes for a compelling watch.
King’s Theatre, 473 2000, until 26 Aug (not 23), 2.30pm (Sun, Wed & Thu) & 7.30pm, £12 - £27.