Published in the Guardian Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh Two stars
WAS THERE a secret clause in the 1707 Act of Union? Did it state that every Scottish historical drama had to be set in a pub off Edinburgh's Royal Mile, populated by ne'er-do-wells, undercover nobles and a poet who would declaim Roman verse whenever the conversation flagged? Was there a further stipulation that no woman could appear unless she were a prostitute or a royal?
If so, then playwright Tim Barrow follows the decree to the letter. But it's not over-familiarity that lets Union down so much as its lack of narrative interest.
Given the urgency of the subject matter, this is odd. Six months before Scotland votes on independence, the play highlights the shaky foundation of the union. With Daniel Defoe acting as a go-between for the English establishment, it shows how Scotland's parliamentarians, financially crippled by the colonial misadventure of the Darien scheme, were bribed to vote in favour of a united kingdom.
Barrow establishes this early on and returns to it at the end. In between, there is little conflict and much extraneous material. You could imagine it adapting well to a House of Cards-style study of realpolitik as nobles are nobbled and favours called in. Instead, Barrow gets distracted by the inconsequential relationship between the poet Allan Ramsay and a prostitute, and by the ravings of a potty-mouthed Queen Anne. Perhaps we're supposed to see the prostitute's abortion as a symbol of Scotland's thwarted ambitions and the queen's miscarriages as a metaphor for England's emotional dead-end, but the ideas are not developed and the scenes hard to justify.
Mark Thomson's cast show flashes of inspiration, but tonally it's all over the place, swerving between serious costume drama and pantomimic satire. And although the fate of two nations is in the balance, it's surprisingly easy to forget what's at stake.