King of Scotland
AT the box office, the assistant asks a couple buying tickets how they heard about the show. They say it was the poster of Jonathan Watson outside. No doubt they won’t be the only people lured into Iain Heggie’s play by the big picture of the star of Only an Excuse pasted at the front of the theatre. And no doubt they arrive ready for a good night out.
What they get is something a little bit different. Loosely based on Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, King of Scotland is the modern-day tale of Tommy McMillan whose 28 years of unemployment (“a lifetime achievement”) have left him with nothing but a mould-stricken council flat and an increasingly unhinged sense of reality.
His life would have continued in underclass obscurity had he not been singled out by the department of social inclusion as a prime candidate for a job in a call centre. Signing up for the “training for work” scheme, he becomes a mascot for a government eager to demonstrate the inroads it is making in reaching out to all sectors of society.
McMillan, however, fails to realise he is a figure of political convenience and genuinely believes he has been taken on for his talents and for the rapport he has struck up with Sir Alec, his high-flying boss. What starts off as a naïve misunderstanding develops over the course of the play into seriously delusional behaviour. Even as he is being restrained in a straitjacket, he believes he has been made the King of Scotland.
There are three things going on in the play. One is the straight-ahead comedy of a man being transferred from one social world into another. This is made funnier by Heggie’s scabrous language. The next is the political satire about the gap between the powerful and the dispossessed and about how, behind the campaign slogans and photo opportunities, the establishment will always look after its own. Finally, there is the portrayal of a man’s decline into madness, an affliction that seems to be directly related to the stresses of a disenfranchised life.
What’s likely to surprise people about Watson’s performance is that it is this last aspect he is most drawn to. He has the right comic timing and feel for the west-coast rhythms of Heggie’s script and scores many a laugh but, in the playwright’s own production, he declines to go down the route of sketch-show caricature. Instead, he gives a subdued performance that is poignant in its portrayal of an ordinary man losing his sanity. McMillan’s superiority complex – whether he is lording it over the “riffraff” he lives with or imagining himself as king – comes across not as arrogance but as severe psychological damage.
It is an interesting and sensitive approach, but it deprives the play of some of its raw comedic energy which, I imagine, will leave many of Watson’s fans feeling a little puzzled.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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