March 26, 2014 5:46 pm

Union, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh – review

Flitting from brothel to palace and parliament, a timely and lively reminder of how Great Britain was born
Union©Tim Morozzo

Tony Cownie as Robert Walpole, Ifan Meredith as Lord Halifax and Mark McDonnell as William Congreve. Photo: Tim Morozzo

It is common in Scotland these days to hear complaints about the quality of debate ahead of September’s referendum on independence from the UK. Just this month Johann Lamont, leader of the Scottish Labour party, accused nationalist opponents of running “the most dishonest, deceptive and disgraceful political campaign this country has ever seen”.

Lamont should get herself down to Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre for a showing of Union, a foul-mouthed and bawdy exploration of the machinations surrounding the 1707 union of the Scottish and English parliaments that is a useful reminder of how our political mores have improved over the past three centuries.


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Though some Scots had argued for union with England for generations, patriotic resistance was overcome only by bullying, blackmail and outright bribery. A recurring motif of Union is an infamous list of the cash payments to be made to Scottish lords in exchange for their votes. No wonder the Edinburgh mob rioted when they heard their country would be subsumed into a new Great Britain.

But Union is no nationalist rant. Tim Barrow’s script offers plentiful reminders of why honest Scots of the day could conclude that merger with England was in their nation’s best interest. In the early years of the 18th century, Scotland was suffering from years of bad harvests, the crippling effect of English trade barriers and the catastrophic failure of the Darien colonial venture that had nearly bankrupted the nation. For many, union offered the best hope of peace and prosperity.

Barrow flits from brothel to palace and parliament to tell this tale. He sets the scene well with a series of vivid vignettes featuring the English writer and spy Daniel Defoe (who arrives brandishing the “love list of bribes”), the Scottish writer Allan Ramsay, plotting lords and Queen Anne, the troubled monarch of both England and Scotland.

A tragic romance between the poet Ramsay and his prostitute muse Grace is intended to be the emotional heart of the play. But its most effective double act is the pro-union aristocratic schemers the Earl of Stair, played by a delightfully doleful Tony Cownie, and Liam Brennan’s charmingly amoral Duke of Queensberry.

The pace flags in Union’s second half, slowed in part by an overlong examination of the childless Queen Anne’s psychological disintegration. But this is a lively and engaging journey back to the historical moment that did as much as any other to define the UK.

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