Composer/performer Iain Johnstone in “I Am Thomas”
Thomas Aikenhead, a student at Edinburgh University, was the last person in Britain to be executed on a charge of blasphemy, at the tender age of 20, when a lot of young man say things they will live to regret. The historical record doesn’t specify whether he was drunk, attention-seeking, or an icon of atheist integrity when he announced in an Edinburgh pub that the Bible was a load of nonsense, and got himself arrested. The sentence of hanging passed on him by the Lord Advocate James Stewart seemed to come as a shock to his contemporaries even at the time. Aikenhead’s last recorded utterance was:
“it is a principle innate and co-natural to every man to have an insatiable inclination to the truth, and to seek for it as for hid treasure… “
Fighting talk. But one man’s blasphemy is another man’s credo, and vice versa. In these days of religious intolerance, when an offensive cartoon can lead to an extra-judicial death sentence, it’s rather surprising that it’s taken so long for someone to make a play about Aikenhead. Now a small revue/drama company with a growing reputation and the brilliant name of, “Told by An Idiot” have put together just such a show, with lyrics by Simon Armitage. Last night we went to see it at the Lowry Centre, Salford Quays.
We begin with a haunting and shocking incident, the full significance of which doesn’t become apparent until about halfway through the play. A devout elderly couple are judicially drowned, clutching their Bibles, for refusing on grounds of conscience to sing, “God Save the King.” It’s the time of the Glorious Revolution, with Jacobite insurgency as much of a threat to the peace of the realm as Islamist extremism is today. It later transpires that the unfortunate pair are none other than the parents of Lord James Stewart, the man who condemns Thomas Aikenhead to death.
As far as I can gather (and I’m no expert on this complicated period of Scottish history) this isn’t based on historical fact, although the custom of such executions comes as no surprise. But it serves a useful purpose in the narrative. It makes it clear that the condemned dissident doesn’t necessarily have the monopoly on truth. The man who passes sentence may have equal grounds for uncompromising morality, seasoned with the fear that if you don’t clamp down hard you risk the social order unravelling. Or, as Javert puts it in Les Miserables:
He knows his way in the dark
Mine is the way of the Lord
Those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
And if they fall as Lucifer fell
I’d be doing the show a disservice, however, if I presented it as a straightforward narrative arc, with Aikenhead as hero and Stewart as traumatised orphan hell-bent on revenge. It’s more like a Brechtian meditation on the the nature of blasphemy, and if it comes to any clear conclusion it is probably that nobody’s truth, however sincerely held, is worth killing another human being for. If that sounds too heavy, I should add that everybody in the eight-strong company takes it in turns to play Thomas and that (for reasons I don’t altogether understand) there’s a lot of 1970s pop culture on display, including a very funny interpolation from the Bay City Rollers. I’m not sure all the jokes come off, but there’s is a wonderful spiky number set in the kirk which runs through all the hideous tortures awaiting those who deny the Almighty, followed by the refrain, “For the God above is a God of love.” Another high point for me is the ballad Roll Up, expressing wonder at the universe seen through a telescope, beautifully performed with a simple piano accompaniment by composer Iain Johnstone, reminiscent of a Tim Machin cabaret number without the snark.
There’s no real attempt a realistic, chronological narrative. In fact, the clue is probably in the name, Told By An Idiot – the ambiguity lies in the details, the apparently trivial signifiers that turn out to be unexpectedly significant. Aikenhead was condemned to death on Christmas Eve 1696: the appearance of the Magi is genuinely touching, but also serves as a comment on the mythic nature of faith and the way it interweaves with culture in a way that provokes deep feeling and defies rational analysis. One thing I liked very much about this approach is that it doesn’t take the easy route of hammering home Significant Contemporary Parallels. Yes, they are there – but a “Je Suis” T-shirt doesn’t make its appearance until the last scene.
My partner came away frustrated, wanting more background and verifiable historical detail. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be very much of that to go on, although Aikenhead’s inditement can easily be tracked down on Google and alleges with unintended irony that, among his other crimes, “….he preferred Muhammad to Christ.” I think the show is best appreciated as a poem rather than a story. You might get more out of Yeats’ Second Coming if you know about the 1916 Easter Rising, but his observation on political demagogues that, “the best lack all conviction and the worst/Are filled with passionate intensity,” has a timeless resonance.
Do look out for I Am Thomas. It’s touring Britain until the end of April and makes a bracing, much more economical, alternative to overhyped West End blockbusters.