Music: Iain Johnstone
Lyrics: Simon Armitage
Director: Paul Hunter
Reviewer: Jon Wainwright
The lights go down, and in the darkness we hear the knocking in of nails and the sawing of wood. Given even the barest acquaintance with the historical facts behind this story, these sounds evoke not the socially useful activity of, say, building a house but the erecting of a scaffold for the purpose of judicial execution. It’s an ominous opening, and soon Iain Johnstone, the performing musical director, is banging out big chords on the Wilton upright, driving out centuries of superstition with uplifting tunes and lyrics in praise of reason. Most of the tremendous cast also play instruments, from the double bass to the violin, and all contribute to a brilliant musical and dramatic structure that holds together what should be utterly incompatible strands, from Match of the Day pundits commenting on the verdict (“there’s no place for that in the modern game”) to police procedurals, with Monty Python and punk thrown into the mix.
Thomas Aikenhead’s mistake in his short life (he was 20 when he died) was not to have learned to self-censor. You might believe that “paradise is a pack a lies” and “Cain and Abel a fable” but don’t go around broadcasting such views. His misfortune was to come up against James Stewart, the Lord Advocate with a peculiar determination to stamp out impiety and set an example to others. At the end of the 17th century, Edinburgh was a city full of preachers whose business depended upon belief in a “God of love above” – two propositions coming under increasing scrutiny. At the beginning of the century, Galileo had been the first to use the telescope to look into the heavens. Thomas followed suit, and saw the moon as a “lump of geology pockmarked and flawed” with no sign of a divine architect anywhere in sight. As for the doctrine of hellfire (sinners “weep and bleed from every orifice”), this was hardly evidence of a compassionate being.
According to this interpretation of events, Aikenhead was not just knocking something he didn’t believe in. He was a genuine seeker after truth, and found “far more wonder in this device” (the telescope) than “all the holy books can devise.” Come See the Light is a heartfelt invitation to join the Enlightenment, to see the world through the clarifying lens of reason, not the distorting dark glass of superstition. Rhapsody of Nonsense is an equally powerful denunciation of religion. Just how nonsensical can be gauged by the crime of which Aikenhead was accused: To commit blasphemy is to speak against the divine, which means that every single person on the planet is guilty, since each one of us is an unbeliever when it comes to most gods that have ever been claimed to exist. (Aikenhead was executed in 1697 for offending Christian sensibilities; in 2016 in Pakistan, Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, is awaiting execution for having drunk the same water as her Muslim neighbours, thereby insulting the Prophet. This is a musical with horrifying contemporary relevance.)
Each actor takes a turn as Thomas (their costumes helpfully marked “I am Thomas”), namesake of that apostle who dared to ask a perfectly reasonable question and, for his trouble, got labelled as “Doubting” in Christian history. In the end, the connection to recent events in Paris is made clear by John Pfumojena’s “Je suis Thomas” T-shirt. It is Pfumojena whose voice is silenced by the noose, but it is his voice that transcends his character’s death with a spine-tingling cry that speaks to the universality and compassion of humanity, as the Music Hall is filled with a thousand sparkling lights thrown off two glitterballs. Pfumojena’s training in Zimbabwe provides a wonderful counterpoint to the (equally wonderful) Scottish brogue that dominates the production.
Simon Armitage’s lyrics are rich in unpretentious poetic qualities such as assonance and rhythm, and have the intellectual weight to carry the story. The subtitle of the show is “A Brutal Comedy with Songs”: The gallows humour is a prescient comment on the latest Scottish Social Attitudes Survey, in which 52% of those questioned said they had no religion. Does that mean that over half the population of modern Scotland would risk suffering the same fate as Thomas Aikenhead, if transported back in time? We are all Thomas indeed.
Running until 30th April 2016 | Image: Contributed