Burn is Alan Cumming’s solo dance theater tribute to Robert Burns, Scotland’s National poet. Using the poet’s letters and poems, Cumming attempts to tell the story of his brief tortured life ending at age 37, in a dense 50 minutes of playing time. While it does not appear that the poet reduced his name to “Burn,” Cumming makes it clear that the poet burned out having suffered from a bipolar condition then called hydromania as well as burning the candle at both ends. Co-created by Cumming and choreographer Steven Hoggett (Vicki Manderson, co-choreographer) to electronic music by contemporary composer Anna Meredith, the performance piece has little dance except for a Highland Fling, and is made up mostly of arm gestures that resemble sign language or leg movements that fit the action to the word.
Told in the first person, Cumming informs us of his impoverished childhood on various hardscrabble farms where his father William went bankrupt several times, dying when his son was 25 and leaving him with the upkeep on the family’s acreage. We learn of his cavalier pursuit of many women, his elopement with Jean Armor to whom he did not stay faithful, and his many children. Eventually his scribblings became published and he became famous all over Scotland. He is often laid low with a depression so severe he cannot get out of bed. Always in need of money for his ever growing family, he takes a job as an exciseman which meant he was continually traveling to various towns in bad weather. Eventually his health breaks down and he dies at age 37 after seven years on the road.
The show is punctuated by poems which unfortunately are drowned out by the music (in Matt Padden’s sound design) and impossible to read in the projections on the back scrim. The elaborate production uses often distracting slides and streaming video by Andrzej Goulding depicting his homes, symbolic flowers, dates, landscapes, and a continually changing calendar.
While Cumming is the only person on stage, the production also features the voices of Anne Lacey and Benny Young as two of his correspondents. In addition, a row of women’s shoes descends from the rigging and represents five of his many girlfriends, while his correspondent Mrs. Dunlop is created by the white dress which rises from the stage. Costume designer Katrina Lindsay has given Cumming various pieces of clothing that he adds to his basic black tank top and breeches and that he dons or removes at various times.
The spare set by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita which includes simply a writing desk (stage right), assorted chairs, and a heap of white material (stage left) which rises to form a gentlewoman’s gown is enhanced by magical effects by Kevin Quantum including a quill which continues to write after Burns steps away from his desk and chairs that balances themselves at precarious angles.
Although Alan Cumming is a charismatic performer, the distracting video design, the often overpowering music, and the often flashing lighting by Tim Lutkin, gets in the way of viewing the show. Much of the effect is created by the atmospheric lighting which periodically changes color (blue, green, red) yet at times it turns the evening into a multimedia event. Since none of the poems are clear enough to be understood, we learn little of Burns’ output as a poet though we do hear about his triumphs that lead to being lionized in Edinburgh. The contemporary music only rarely suggests the period. The dance elements also seem an eccentric way to portray this 18th century man who attempted to live life to the fullest. Cumming charmingly depicts this Scottish icon though he does come off as a lovable rogue. It is all an example of too much being too much. The rather coy ending has Cumming sitting on the edge of the stage declaiming Burns’ now famous poem, “Auld Lang Syne,” after the final curtain has already descended.
Burn (September 20 – 25, 2022)
The Joyce Foundation, The National Theatre of Scotland and the Edinburgh International Festival
The Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue at 19th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.Joyce.org
Running time: 60 minutes without an intermission