‘I Am Thomas’ at the Playhouse
I Am Thomas is a wonderfully weird ‘brutal comedy with songs’, a co-production by Told By an Idiot, the National Theatre of Scotland and Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh, in association with Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse.
This quirky play tells the poignant tale of Thomas Aikenhead who, at the age of 18, was the last man in Britain to be hung for blasphemy in 1697. Thomas was a curious university student who was accused of ridiculing holy scriptures, who supposedly called Christ an ‘imposter’ who had ‘learned magick in Egypt’ which he masqueraded as being ‘miracles’. It is a sad and gruesome tale, symptomatic of the superstition and religious intolerance that was rife in Scotland in the seventeenth-century.
Despite this potential for morbidity, Paul Hunter’s direction, Simon Armitage’s provision of witty and intelligent lyrics, and Iain Johnstone’s musical direction (and performance) result in I Am Thomas succeeding in telling this harrowing tale in an extremely humorous, unique and memorable way. All of this, partnered with the impressive and versatile set design, which included monumental cascading back drops that lent themselves wonderfully to a dramatic tearing down, made the play an absolute pleasure to watch.
Thomas’ story is told using modern themes, his rebellious and inquisitive character portrayed through a love of the bands such as the Sex Pistols and live music. With the help of Armitage’s flawless lyrics Thomas’ story is told through various ‘open-mic’ nights and performances which take the audience on a journey through his story.
Another interesting choice within in the play is the fluidity of Thomas’ character, with each cast member taking a turn to portray him. No explicit explanation or rationale is provided; instead the audience are left with the overwhelming notion that Thomas’ plight is one that has always been, and may always be, one suffered by many. Even in the twenty-first century, people around the world are still being actively persecuted for thinking differently, behaving differently, speaking differently.
The entire cast of this piece are incredibly talented, led with confidence by Iain Johnstone in their swapping of instruments, fantastic vocal performances and even a little bit of dancing. Special attention should be given to the stand-out vocal perfomances provided by Myra McFadyen and John Pfumojena. Pfumojena in particular resonated with the audience, his unnamed, sprite-like character captivating the audience with his powerful and stunning voice. His performance was ethereal and is most certainly one of the most memorable aspects of the play.
Overall, this was a wonderful retelling of a sad story, truly living up to the promise of being ‘a brutal comedy with songs’. Despite the many positive aspects, the story did at times become tricky to follow, in part due to the simultaneous combination of modern motifs and seventeenth century dates and events. As a result of this, it was not until the second act of the performance that the story really began to come together.