“I am Thomas” is a story told in song and black comedy with music by Iain Johnstone and lyrics by Simon Armitage and directed by Paul Hunter which tells the grim story of young Thomas Aikenhead, the last man in Scotland to be hanged for blasphemy.
Thomas Aikenhead (1676 to 1697) was a young Scottish medical student who, given the fact that he was an educated man and the times that he was living in, was strangely foolish enough to denounce God and almost mock Jesus Christ and the scriptures. There were harsh penalties for questioning the Bible, let alone publicly mocking it, and after being reported to the authorities by one of his “friends” Thomas was arrested and charged with blasphemy. As this was his first offence and he repented his actions (he walked to the gallows holding a Bible), most people expected that a combination of his youth and full repentance would get him a minor punishment.
Anyone thinking so though had not counted on the combination of the distinguished lawyer James Stewart and the full weight of the Church of Scotland who saw Thomas as a threat that must be removed before his blasphemous ideas spread to others and someone who should be made an example of to deter others. The result was that at 20 years of age Thomas was hanged on January 8th 1697 at The Gallowlee – a hanging area about half way down the present Leith Street reserved for only the worst of public offenders. At this time, this area would have been on the extreme edges of Edinburgh’s boundaries as Leith itself was still hundreds of years away from joining with Edinburgh, and it would have sent a very powerful message to everyone on the penalties of blasphemy.
The whole narrative here needs to be taken into context in what an extreme religious place Scotland was at the time. The opening scenes of people choosing death by drowning before swearing allegiance to a mortal King before God set the tone for everything that comes after.
I have to admit that until I was going to review this play, I had never heard of Thomas Aikenhead or his blasphemy charge, and did a little internet search on the subject matter before going to the theatre (Google the name, there is a lot out there). I am glad that I did this small bit of research as, without it, I would I think have struggled a bit with the content and format of this work as I have not yet made up my mind if it is thought provoking theatre at its best or “arty” and slightly self-indulgent theatre at its worst. My companion for this show is firmly in the “at best” camp, and as I write this review, my thoughts are slowly moving to agree. The one thing this is definitely not is an easy night at the theatre. This is a piece of work that you have to pay attention to both in the songs and many visual references.
Parts of this work I did find a bit confusing at times, but most of that for me was the fact that there are no real fixed visual references here. We open with a committee that seems set somewhere in the late 1970s/early 1980s by the style of clothing and references, and they are looking to erect a statue to a local person, but who should they choose? The clothing never changes and the story is told in almost pub musician style as we move back and forward in time with “Match of The Day” style commentary on the events as they unfold. I had no idea how this story was going to be told, but I was expecting a far more period setting and a story told in a far more dramatic style for some reason, so this format was a real surprise that took a little while to adjust to.
This is still an odd piece of theatre for me – it is a very deceptive piece of work that on one level looks chaotic and almost amateur dramatic at times, but once you stay with it for a while you realise what a cleverly crafted and well written and thought out piece it is and, like the best of theatre, is working on so many levels and asking so many questions.
The first song we hear is from Iain, “Rhapsody of Nonsense”, as he announces that “I am Thomas”. Just as you get comfortable with that though, the role of Thomas is taken up with another cast member. In fact, at some time every one has on their “I am Thomas” T-shirt and it gets a bit like that classic “I am Spartacus” line from the famous film. Is the message that we are all Thomas? – I don’t know the answer to that. I did find this constant shifting of Thomas as a character to other performers a bit confusing at times as I was just starting to like one person’s portrayal then it shifted to someone else.
There are lots of references here and I probably missed a few, but watch for the slowly being completed figure of a chalk stick figure hang-man as events move along. The opening court scene is announced with a short piece of music from 1970s punk group Sham 69 –“If the Kids Are United” and the lyrics to the song are apt for the danger that some felt Thomas represented to their order as well as an obvious reference to a sham court hearing.
Later on, we also get a large cloth backdrop of a six member comic super-hero group called “Extreme Justice”. If like me, you have a big interest in vintage comics you will recognise that this is artwork slightly re-styled from a 1940s American comic group called “The Seven Soldiers of Victory” with to me at least obvious characters (even if re-named and costumes re-styled) like “The Vigilante”.
Probably the most telling of all references is at the very end though, because unlike everyone else who has gone before, the final cast member who is playing Thomas in his final moments is not wearing a red “I am Thomas” T-Shirt but a “Je Suis Thomas” one – a clear and obvious reference to the 2015 attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris and the adoption by so many of “Je Suis Charlie” T-Shirts as a supportive message on the freedom of speech and a stand against religious intolerance wherever in the world that may happen to be taking place.
I have deliberately not mentioned cast members (apart from Iain) in this review as that ever morphing identity of “Thomas” is the story. No one I think really knows what Thomas was like, so no one performer is really anything more than a face at one time of Thomas Aikenhead
It is not often that I review a performance that I am so split about. To be honest, I probably missed a lot of things here and a second sitting through of this work is probably in order. This is theatre doing only what theatre can really do and engage an audience directly and make them think (I doubt this would work anywhere near as well on television), but it is probably theatrical marmite. There is, I think, little room for middle ground here if you go along to The Lyceum. You will simply either be totally absorbed with this work or decide that it is not for you. This is simply one that you have to go to no matter what reviews you read and make your own mind up on.
Review by Tom King