EIF: Burn, King’s Theatre, Review

Burn - production photography by Tommy Ga-Ken
Rating (out of 5)
Show info
National Theatre of Scotland
Alan Cumming (creator), Steven Hoggett (creator / co-choreographer), Vicki Manderson (co-choreographer), Ana Inés Jabares-Pita (set designer), Katrina Lindsay (costume designer), Anna Meredith (music), Tim Lutkin (lighting designer), Andrzej Goulding (video designer), Matt Padden (sound designer), Kevin Quantum (illusion consultant), Roberto Esquenazi Alkabes (associate lighting designer), Shilpa T-Hyland (associate director), Heather Scott (video design trainee), Kirsteen McCue and Moira Hansen (academic consultants).
Alan Cumming
Running time

“Burns the man and Burns the poetic genius went wonderfully together. There is more of the real Burns in many of his poems than can be learned from any known account of his life” – Rev Stopford Wentworth Brooke.

There are rattling showers and bellowing thunder, but if the Devil has anything at hand it’s only to raise the spirit of Robert Burns.

The bard steps into the spotlight’s gleam to share his story in his own words, taken from his letters and poems.

"Here am I. You have doubtless heard my story, heard it with all its exaggerations. But I shall just beg a leisure moment of you until I tell my own story my own way."

It’s a dance through his short, messy, passionate, and complicated life.  The huge projected backdrop ticks up calendar pages from 1759, the year of his birth, as Cumming picks up the tale, his stylised moves choreographed to match his words, like a visual punctuation.

An early life is characterised by poverty as his family move from small holding to farm without improving circumstances.  Farming is “a ruinous affair”.

Affairs are also associated with him, as he woos, pleads and confides with the overlapping loves in his life.  The years tick on.  On April 14th 1786 a proposal to publish his poems is advertised in the hope of attracting subscribers and on the same day Jean Armour's father tears up the paper in which Burns attested his marriage to her.

To be a poet is still his highest ambition but his “constitutional hypochondriac taint” sees him swing from melancholy to grandiose.  His hypomania is charted in his work, contrasting with his fortunes. Still, his poetic temperament is a worthwhile trade for the demons.

The dark and light are captured in the impressive projections (from landscape to sketched farms, documents, and animations, including grey mare, Meg) and in the “uncategorisable” music. Both lend Burns a rock star element that his life suggests.

There is added wizardry in illusions which manifest a self-writing quill, paper spewing desk and sinking chairs.

Cumming would be the first to agree that he is not a conventional dancer, and the early sequences feel like forms and gestures conjoined to simplify it for him. As the piece develops however it becomes more complex, poised, and lithe; as when the ploughman, wearing many hats, is reeling to engage the Enlightened Edinburgh coterie of publisher, printer, and patrons.

Without a little knowledge of the man and his works it might not get entirely under his skin, but we are left with Burns own “flattering faith that my poetry will considerably out-live my povertyand of course his motto “I dare!”.

Cumming is naturally captivating, and the production is an audacious, striking, enchanting and wholly modern evocation of the man.

Surely if the bard were to see the show it would lift his spirits.


Show Times – 6 to 10 (not 8) August 2022 8pm (also 3pm on 7, 9, 10).

Tickets - £16 to £46

Suitability - Contains mild swearing and sexual references. Strobe-like lights are used in this performance.