I Am Thomas - Theatre ☆☆☆☆4
Showing from - Friday, February 19, 2016 through till Saturday, February 27, 2016
Liverpool Playhouse - Liverpool
Johanna Roberts | Wednesday, February 24, 2016
As the subtitle 'A Brutal Comedy With Songs' suggests, I am Thomas is just that. Indeed, the tale of Thomas Aikenhead, a medical student at Edinburgh University whose execution in 1697 made him the last person to be hanged for blasphemy in Great Britain, is bleak and grim.
But not unrelentingly so. In the hands of Told by an Idiot, it is also comic, and yes, there are songs.
The framework is a discussion about which of Edinburgh’s famous sons (or daughters!) deserves a statue on the fourth plinth and a quick trawl through the history books brings up the name of Aikenhead. As you would expect from Simon Armitage, the lyrics are layered and wittyAs the subsequent song makes clear, no one knows who he was, and so the story begins.
While the main set is a 17th century courtroom with scene changes cleverly effected by the use of back clothes and props, the switching between modern dress and period costume and the use of modern props indicate that the theme of free speech and the issue of capital punishment - for blasphemy or for being a threat to the state - resonate very much with contemporary society.
To demonstrate this universality, cultural references abound: to the Nazi state, the perennially menacing men in trench coats and sunglasses, and most specifically, to the Charlie Hebdo massacre - a point underlined by the role of Thomas being handed from actor to actor either by the use of t-shirts or in a macabre game of ‘pass the noose’.
Inventive and Innovative
The production has all the hallmarks of the company’s inventive and innovative style but you need to be on your toes to follow the interweaving of several stories throughout the structure. While the breaks for football style commentary on the events are clever (with nods to Alan Hansen and Shankly) and reflect historic attitudes to hanging as a public spectacle, they struck a discordant note with my teenage son who felt they broke the flow of the story. Indeed the production does sometimes feel a bit rough around the edges – perhaps deliberately so.
As you would expect from Simon Armitage, the lyrics are layered and witty. Some are taken from the transcript of the trial, where it was claimed Aikenhead had called theology ‘a rhapsody of feigned and ill-invented nonsense. Others, such as references to ‘Satan’s deep fat fryer’ and the congregation’s listing of the torments that await evil doers are juxtaposed with their clearly ironic claim that ‘God is love’. These hit darkly humorous notes. But there are also moments of extreme lyricism, enhanced by the musicianship and harmonies of the cast.
So, not a production for everyone (and certainly not one for the faint hearted), but it is thought-provoking, ingenious, and surprisingly funny.
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