Edinburgh Fringe 2010
The collapse of the Darien expedition brought Scotland to its knees just over 300 years ago. The price of failure arguably cost Scotland its independence through the Act of Union signed a decade after thousands died and many more suffered catastrophic losses in the country’s biggest single financial disaster. Until 2007 that is………..
The 1696 Darien expedition represents Scotland’s sole foray into empire building. It was a classic high-risk capitalist venture which generated a wave of public enthusiasm as people rushed to invest in the revolutionary vehicle of a joint stock company. Virtually every Scot had a slice of the action and all expected to make a quick buck.
The venture was a complete failure, almost bankrupting the country and was largely responsible for Scotland agreeing to end its independence by signing the Act of Union a decade later. Some would argue that the Scot’s psyche has never recovered. And it seems that recent events, in which the country’s banking system was brought to its knees and had to be bailed out once more by those south of the border, have merely served to reinforce Scots’ views that independence may not be a sustainable goal.
At any rate, that’s the thrust of Alistair Beaton’s Caledonia treatise, offered up through this National Theatre of Scotland production directed by Anthony Neilson. Spectacularly staged and acted with energy and enthusiasm by a talented cast, the play pivots around William Paterson (excellently played by Paul Higgins), the inventive financier behind the attempted colonisation. He in turn is backed by a host of well formed characters and caricatures, particularly Paul Blair as the Presbyterian preacher.
Played as part parody, part pastiche, part commedia dell’arte and with occasional moments of reflection, pathos and poignancy as the enormity of the logistical and physical challenge the explorers have agreed to undertake begins to hit home, the senses of those watching were in a constant state of stimulation.
But that’s where Caledonia, rather like the Darien expedition itself, starts to unravel. In trying to be all things to all men, the play ends up being nothing to any of them. By all means satirise, but most of the allegories linking the expedition to the recent financial hurricane had all the subtlety of a house brick. And cheap digs at the English and parochial gags about Glaswegians were barely amusing three hundred years ago and are certainly not now. The lyrics to the frequent outbursts of song were scarcely imaginative either, lacking bite and purpose most of the time. But at least the music provided a break from a script that, by the interval, was more akin to Carry On Cruising. All that was missing was Sid James goosing the ladies and Hattie Jacques in a sailor suit.
It was only as Caledonia reached its merciful conclusion that the real victims emerged – the two thousand or so who paid with their lives on what was ultimately an ill-conceived, poorly planned and disastrously led expedition. All credit then to the cast for rescuing Caledonia and holding it together with their commitment and enthusiasm. And to the superb set and lighting for creating much needed diversionary interest for an audience that, towards the end, had a distinctly bemused look about it.
Shareholders can be unforgiving if those to whom they have entrusted their cash fail to deliver. and Patterson was duly pilloried on his return to home shores. Shareholders in NTS (and we’re all in that boat) need to be similarly minded. This was an poorly targeted attempt to draw a parallel between a long forgotten crack-pot capitalist venture and what many see as Scotland’s current political and economic aspirations – bad enough to have Donald Dewar spinning in his grave, I suspect. NTS need to sharpen up their act or run the risk that its shareholders re-enact the inevitable conclusion to the Darien venture – by winding up the whole shebang.