Dear Scotland, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh – review

There are five months to go to Scotland’s independence referendum, and in a hall of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh an actor playing Robert Burns stands in front of the most famous painting of the nation’s favourite long-dead bard. Using words written by Liz Lochhead, the current Scots Makar or national poet, Burns declares that the time has come “to shit or get off the pot”.

The idea behind Dear Scotland, the latest production by the National Theatre of Scotland, would be a good one at any time. Arriving amid the intense introspection of the referendum debate, it feels inspired.

Twenty leading writers were commissioned to produce five-minute monologues for performance in front of the portraits they have chosen. The audience gets a choice of two after-hours tours through the delightful gallery building, each one a series of often audacious recitals featuring figures from royalty to historical hangers-on.

All the pieces relate in some way to the current state of Scotland. Some are focused firmly on the referendum. Lochhead’s seeks to settle bickering over whether Burns would have backed independence. Her ploughman poet is a polemicist whose yearning for social justice has him marshalling his muse to sway votes toward Yes.

Novelist James Robertson uses the great adventurer Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham, who helped to found the Scottish National party, to put the case for a generous civic vision of independence. And nationalist comedian Hardeep Singh Kohli channels trade unionist Jimmy Reid, an SNP supporter, to stress the need for all in Scotland to resolve to work together, whatever the referendum result.

Unionists get a weaker showing, reflecting perhaps the weight of opinion among modern-day wordsmiths – though not, I imagine, the balance of views among the worthies on the National Portrait Gallery’s walls.

In Iain Heggie’s telling, King James VI and I, unifier of the crowns of Scotland and England, is entertainingly disgruntled by division between his kingdoms, and Stuart Hepburn’s take on comedian Chic Murray is a subtler reflection on the forces that pull us together. But the real Walter Scott, who played a central role in defining Scottish identity in the 19th century, would surely have made a defence of British union more appealing than the waspish satire offered on his behalf by playwright Peter Arnott.

A work by 20 authors is inevitably a patchwork. But the cheeky conceit of channelling a portrait subject, living or dead, makes for a flurry of multi-layered fresh perspectives. Delivered here by a spirited and effective cast, this show is by turns funny, sad, annoying and uplifting. Not unlike Scotland’s referendum debate itself.

Until Saturday,

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