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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.
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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Caledonia, theatre review

Published in Scotland on Sunday


King's Theatre, Edinburgh

"SCOTLAND will be mighty again", chant the investors who have just sunk their savings into a get-rich-quick scheme to colonise the Isthmus of Panama. "Was Scotland every mighty?" queries a bystander.

The remark sets the tone of Alistair Beaton's satirical retelling of the country's most ignoble example of venture capitalism until our own banking crisis, a connection the playwright is quick to exploit.

In this National Theatre of Scotland production, he presents the late-17th century Darien Scheme as a ridiculous farce in which a credulous and parochial nation buys all too easily into a poorly tested plan to become an empire.

How can they resist when it is "financed by private investment, protected by the state"?

Paul Higgins plays financier William Paterson, the scheme's charismatic ring-leader, with the blank-eyed stare of an inveterate gambler.

He is full of self-belief and prone to outbursts of violent indignation at anything that stands in the way of his vision. Whether it is a vision of nationalistic ambition or messianic fervour is something of which even he seems uncertain.

That is of no consequence when his countrymen are such a wretched bunch of drinkers, zealots and jumped-up officials.

If Scotland loves to revel in its own defeats, Caledonia revels more than most.

Beaton's script works best when it is most resonant with political anger and contemporary parallels - which is also when it is funniest.

It is weaker when it has to get through the historically factual story. Fortunately, it has Anthony Neilson on side to enliven things. With the first sign of a list or a grandstanding speech, the director sets the stage spinning with eccentric dances, slapstick business or musical turns.

He makes the acting deliberately (and comically) melodramatic and uses Peter McKintosh's set of wooden scaffolding to suggest the make-believe world of the theatre.

It is a world as fanciful as Paterson's scheme and, by the climax, the fallen entrepreneur is still trying to work his leading man magic, pathetically attempting to spur his stricken countrymen into life with his histrionic gestures. He is an actor whose audience has lost faith in him.

Thus it is that Caledonia goes from knock-about humour to something close to tragedy, finishing with tremendous power on a note of political outrage as playwright and director remind us that in the financial follies of the rich and powerful, it is the ordinary person who pays the price.

© Mark Fisher 2010

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