25 January has long since marked the day when the life and works of Scottish poet Robert Burns is celebrated. Whilst Keara Murphy’s ‘The Bard and I’ participated in this tradition, it also used less frequently discussed aspects of his work to present them in a new light.
Murphy, a playwright and comedian, debuted her play – which featured an all-female cast – at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. Speaking in a dark, spot-lit space, there was little room for distraction during the intimate three-person performance. With minimal staging, Murphy interwove comedy, personal storytelling, dramatic monologues and music to reflect the multidisciplinary nature of Burns’ work. Murphy explored Burns’ life and relationships whilst also discussing her personal experience as a documentary maker. The event was interspersed with renditions of Burns’ songs on the clarsach by Pauline Vallance, and performances by Heather Roberts of Burns’ poems and diaries. This brought to light the little-known lives of Burns’ wife and mistresses, including Agnes Maclehose and Margaret Cameron.
Murphy spoke about her personal experience as a woman at male-dominated Burns Suppers. The entrenched sexism of the holiday was described in striking detail as she talked about the traditional ‘Toast to the Lassies’ and the ‘Reply on Behalf of the Lassies’. Having herself attended Burns Suppers where hundreds of men and a few women were present, she described how women are effectively silenced in the speeches until late in the evening.
By balancing her personal experience of Burns’ legacy with her research about the women of Burns’ life, Murphy’s play was both thoughtful and informative. It was fascinating to see the women so often known only as names in Burns’ poems brought to life on the stage. Generally, the performance was strongest when it focused on Burns and the women in his life, rather than more comedic or anecdotal tangents. Murphy’s comparison of Burns to the contemporary Scottish comedian Billy Connolly, for example, was less compelling than the historical narrative in the later part of the play.
Heather Roberts’ performance was particularly versatile – she expertly characterised each role, sometimes switching between multiple voices in a single monologue. However, the difficulty of portraying numerous characters with little help from props or costumes sometimes showed, and her performances occasionally felt gimmicky as she grappled to differentiate the characters.
Although its focus was somewhat revisionary, a strong thread of Scottish patriotism ran throughout the play. Audience members joined in with Vallance, Murphy and Roberts’ final performance of ‘A Fragment’, showing that, despite issues that were highlighted by the performers, Burns continues to be a cultural touchstone in everyday Scottish life.
Keara Murphy: The Bard and I took place at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the 26th January.
Murphy’s documentaries can be found on BBC iPlayer, including her brand-new documentary The Death and Resurrection of Robert Burns which aired on 25 January 2018.
Image: Douglas Timmins.