Anything that Gives off Light
TEAM building and complicating the past with the NTS
This article is from 2016.
Perhaps one of the most common themes of British identity is the navel-gazing obsession with what constitutes British identity in a pluralistic society. Usually part of a bold attempt to disentangle national identity from anti-immigration racism, it is also, ironically, the same preoccupation that makes Scottish identity most British as it tries to separate itself from Englishness. Fortunately, Anything that Gives off Light is a co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland and the American company The TEAM and the early scenes, which include direct meditations on the history of Scotland and calibration of certain behaviours' Scottishness, are replaced by a more trenchant critique of global complicity.
Using a road trip to the Highlands by two Scots and an American as a structuring conceit, Anything … eventually evolves into a psychedelic study of the relationship between the Scottish Enlightenment, emigration and the current environmental crisis. Switching between the history of the clearances – now competing for the most used theatrical symbol of oppression – and the contemporary mayhem of West Virginia's coal industry, director Rachel Chavkin attacks pieties about Scottish and American victimhood, drawing the line between fantasies of freedom and violent aggression. Simple notions, such as the Scotland of Scotch and plucky rebellion, or America the gun-toting self-made entrepreneur, are replaced by more complex ideas.
How far the US is founded on Scottish philosophy – Adam Smith's invisible hand theory of capitalism – and emigration is considered, with the final scene of two Scots debating whether staying or leaving is the more Scottish response to economic disorder. Brian Ferguson and Sandy Grierson both live up to their reputations as great Scottish actors, playing the warring couple, and the band's mixture of Appalachian and Scottish folk make the link between the two nations explicit.
The early scenes are a little slow, meandering around the familiar litany of Scottish complaints, and the band's electronic instrumentation is jarring against the clean sound of guitar, violin and bagpipes. Yet by the time they all hit the climactic climate catastrophe, TEAM's vision of a political, yet complicated, theatre brings home the culpability of the apparently wounded partners.
Of course, the conclusion is that Scotland's history is more complicated than the picture book fantasy of Bonnie Prince Charlie, Culloden and the clearances, and if the loose structure tips its Stetson to the stylings of the ceilidh play (episodic, musical, satirical), the replacement version is sentimental. A list of cheerfully multi-cultural images of Glasgow, described by Grierson – but not actually recognisable as contemporary Glasgow – replaces the misery of evictions and failed socialist protests, and scepticism about the very notion of discreet racial identities.
Having a bagpipe solo as an encore does take the conclusion back to old fashioned cultural identity, and the tourist utopia that Jessica Almasy's Red expected at the start of the show. Nevertheless, there is plenty of intelligent thought, and emotive appeals, to consider, and Anything … does sketch out the possibilities of more nuanced cultural conversations.
EICC, until 26 Aug, various times, £25 (£12.50–£17.50).