Edinburgh Fringe 2018
A Man’s A Man can best be described as a musical in its infancy with a heart of gold and an accent as thick as heather on the Scottish hills. With catchy folk-pop chorals and hauntingly lovely ballads, a unique chord is struck, breathing history from page to stage.
A Man’s A Man is a contemporary musical about the life of Robert Burns, an outspoken poet and controversial figure. He championed the 18th-century egalitarian ideals while simultaneously embodying an over-sexed rogue. BBC award-winning singers Claire Hastings (Nancy Maclehose) and Hannah Rarity (Jean Armour) provide an outstanding complement to the exemplary Kieran Bain (Robert Burns). Join Maclehose, Armour and Bain for a night of poetry, love, laughter, deviance and the Catholic Church.
Regarded as the National Poet of Scotland, Burns had a humble upbringing. He was born in 1759, the son of tenant farmer William and his wife Agnes Burns in Alloway. The play begins with Burns, young and in love (if not in lust). It traverses his life as a famed poet and a tawdry drunk bringing us through his maturation into fatherhood and eventual death.
It is extraordinarily difficult to encompass someone’s life, let alone a historical figure. While occasionally tangential, the show cleverly arranges itself around Burns. More like a retelling than reality, this post-structuralist biopic cleverly melds the splendid and the surreal. It resists the urge of self-indulgence and the ease of solipsism for something more earnestly imagined. It is creative yet accessible.
Romantic poets are characterized by their worship of nature. There is magic when words can transport, crossing over into a new land. However, the show would be improved by a more defined imaginary world or a few set pieces. The bare stage can be like a poetry book left in the rain – the ink runs and you can’t read it. The actors have little sense of place. In a great play, as an actor looks out, we do not see them looking at a bare wall above our heads but at the greater unknown. When they move, they do so with purpose. Each place on stage should hold history. When Burns sits upon a stool, the character should know if he used it for milking as a child and how a young boy milking a cow sits. He should know how the grass and manure commingle to form a uniquely beguiling scent. Without the actors knowing and agreeing upon one singularly imagined world, the audience cannot be fully transported.
Sense of place is greatly helped by the lighting. In moments of the surreal, gelled fixtures cast an otherworldly glow upon the stage. In angelic moments a contour of angel’s wings can be discerned. However, the front light seems to glare in Burns’ face causing him to squint and casting an anaemic pallor in the hollows of his cheeks. This gothic aspect is seemingly ill-placed. The side lights, blue and pink, faintly reflect off the skin which is reminiscent of cotton candy.
Despite the lack of specificity within the staging, the acting wins out. A special mention should be given to Boston Alexander, played by Gilbert Burns. Gilbert, the brother of Robert Burns, was brimming with pride, love and resentment. When Gilbert holds onto his brother, it is like he is clutching a soul away from hell. Evocative and thrilling, Alexander exemplifies the best of the play’s book. He has developed a deep and touching relationship between the Burns brothers, amplifying the severity of Robert’s actions.
It’s clear that a great deal of care was spent in forming strong-willed and outspoken women…who unfortunately do not pass the Bechdel test. Nancy Maclehose sings of women having equality and freedom and Jean Armour chastises Burns for his previous actions. While both women face the harsh puritanical realities of late 18th century Ireland, this does not shutter their tongue nor stick their mind, proving the will of a woman has long transcended the ego of a man. They have lives outside of his kiss, his wanton embrace and his enticing words. His manipulations create a dramatic tension where truth and consequence are placed at the forefront.
Bains’ eyes sparkle as he performs Burns’ ambitions – the glimmer and promise of fame. He becomes an icon to replace the church that shamed his name. Bains’ monologues are brash and electrifying.
Much of the show centres around Robert Burns’ love affairs. Burns says “I love you” many times in the play. However, he doesn’t use any of the poet’s tools – rhyme, allusion, metaphor, simile or sanction. A celebrated romantic poet should have a million ways to say “I love you.”
Despite lost passion, Robert Burns’ silver-tongued solos are energized with iconoclastic glee. It gives performer Kieran Bain a chance to shine, singing poetry in a fast-paced staccato rhythm. Hanna Rarity (Jean Amour) is a welcome alto amongst the sea of mezzo-sopranos. Rarity’s lament filled with natural vibrato and perfect pitch is all the more impressive for its aching emotional timbre.
The sole duet, sung in alternating parts with interlocking melodies, reveals the potential that this music holds. Unlike the title melody, which sounds unfortunately similar to Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening, and later numbers which ring of Rock of Ages and Billy Elliot, the duet conjures the melancholic reverie that so often enraptured the romantic poets.
Unfortunately for all the foreigners in the room, the faster songs lacked articulation and were sung in a heavy Scottish accent, sounding more like a man in tongues than a poet in throes. It is not helped by the overly emphatic recorded instrumentals. This formulaic click-track lacks the haunting dissonance or euphoric splendour that the words inspire.
This show is not lacking in genuine love and admiration for this complex historical figure. The music is a crowd pleaser, the performances achieve great highs, with a bit of love and polish, this would be a truly remarkable rendering.