In Europe people have been killed for publishing cartoons of the prophet Mohammed, while across the Atlantic Donald Trump is touring his country eulogising the land of the free, with the proviso that if you’re a follower of said prophet you shouldn’t be allowed to set foot in it. I Am Thomas is about the last person in Britain to be executed for blasphemy, but you don’t need the heavy hint in the title (remember ‘Je Suis Charlie’?) to realise that this thoughtful and – despite the subject matter – very funny play has a lot of relevance today.
Thomas Aikenhead was hanged in 1697. By all accounts he was not (initially at least) a particularly extraordinary or heroic figure. He was a university student, who after a few drinks too many in an Edinburgh tavern sounded off rather loudly about the laughable irrationalities of religious doctrine. Unfortunately he was overheard, and reported to the authorities. From there it wasn’t too long – just a few weeks – before he found himself taking the long walk through the city streets that led from the prison to the scaffold.
Theatre company Told By An Idiot’s main concern is with the issues raised by Thomas’s case, and we get only a sketchy sense of the man’s character. It’s emphasized that he was very young (nineteen) and had a restless, enquiring mind. There’s actually more interest in the psychology of his persecutor, a fearsome Scottish advocate whose own parents (according to the play) died for their beliefs. The part of Aikenhead is taken at different points in the play by all eight members of the cast. It’s a neat device which reinforces the notion that Thomas could be anyone who finds themselves in his shoes, vilified because in someone’s opinion they spoke out of turn. It also strengthens the ‘Je Suis Charlie’ parallel, with the cast enacting the idea of solidarity with Aikenhead’s cause by taking it in turns to actually become him.
The contemporary resonances of the story are underlined by an anarchic blurring of the boundaries between past and present, with much of the narrative transposed to a crazy Seventies world of Match Of The Day, Jacques Cousteau television documentaries and punk rock (the evidence against Thomas includes his possession of a Sex Pistols LP). The Frankie Miller records played before the show started were a nice touch.
The play’s advertised as a ‘brutal comedy’, and the humour is certainly black, but it serves to heighten the absurdity of a society which would take a man’s life because he uttered a few loose words in a pub. There’s music too (by Iain Johnstone), and songs with lyrics by the poet Simon Armitage, in a production that’s very much in the spirit of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. The songs are sparky and entertaining, with extensive use of snappy, emphatic rhymes: ‘I’ve come to the conclusion/That religion’s an illusion’, ‘Christ was a magician/Who exploited his position’.
It’s all performed with gusto by an impressively talented cast, who are mostly on stage together at the same time – playing a multitude of characters, singing the songs and providing their own musical accompaniment. The result is a vibrant, consistently engrossing spectacle. A set primarily consisting of dark wood panelling effectively evokes the atmosphere of numerous locations, including a church, a pub and a court.
Told By An Idiot’s freewheeling, broad brush approach means we don’t learn too much about the specifics of the Thomas Aikenhead case. Given that it’s a largely forgotten historical episode this is perhaps a pity, but many in the audience will have been encouraged to find out more for themselves. And the possible consequences when a society decides to limit free speech are certainly made chillingly clear.
**** Full of imagination and wit
Photos: Manuel Harlan
I Am Thomas continues at the Liverpool Playhouse until Saturday February 27. For more information, click HERE.