Review: From His Letters, the Dark Side of a Man of Letters

Midway through the Scottish actor Alan Cumming’s one-man dance-theater show about the Scottish poet Robert Burns, a piece of paper that Cumming is holding spontaneously combusts. He takes a beat and goes for a joke: “The show is called ‘Burn.’”

It’s a flash of winking humor, but like the paper, it’s gone in an instant. That flare or flicker is emblematic of a production that keeps pouring theatrical fuel on a flame that won’t stay lit. The atmosphere is too soggy.

“Burn,” which had its New York premiere at the Joyce Theater on Tuesday, is a show that sounds unlikely in concept and doesn’t work in practice. It was conceived by Cumming and the choreographer Steven Hoggett as an odd sort of vanity project — Cumming, 57, wanted to do something physical while he still could — and as the humanization of a legend, casting light on the lesser-known inner life of the 18th-century man who is still revered as the national poet of Scotland.

Somewhere along the way, they decided that Burns could be best revealed by his letters, which make up most of the script. One advantage of this approach is that the poet can tell his biography in his own pungent words — and not just the official narrative (the rise from rural poverty to literary fame), but also the dirty bits.

“I took the opportunity of some dry horse litter and gave her such a thundering scalade that electrified the very marrow of her bones,” he says. “Oh, what a peacemaker is a guid weel-willy purple/pintle/prick!”

Immediately after Cumming says this, there’s a flash of light and he collapses on the ground. Has Burns been struck down by God for his sinful ways? Not in this show. On the back wall of the stage, the word “hypochondria” morphs into “hypomania,” a symptom of the bipolar disorder that Cumming and Hoggett and the scholars they consulted believe that Burns had. This diagnosis is mainly what they try to represent theatrically.

They do make an effort. The show — produced by the Joyce, the Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theater of Scotland — boasts a large creative team with impressive credits on Broadway and the West End. There are fancy digital projections and moments of stage magic, as when Cumming walks away from his quill and it continues writing by itself.

The theatrics tend to be cute like that — the many women in Burns’s life are represented by shoes that hang down from the rigging. (Objectified, get it?) Or they are garish, more flashes and smoke. The boldest choice is the music: tracks by the Scottish composer Anna Meredith that could accompany an arty rave, any hint of bagpipes quickly broken into fragmented loops. But in combination with strobe lights and digital images, Meredith’s genre-defying creativity gets cheapened.

And all the sweeping, anachronistic sounds and technological wizardry seem to be overcompensating for a fundamental weakness: the dance part of this dance-theater work. Much of the movement (which Vicki Manderson also choreographed) is just Cumming miming the words he’s already saying. Once, when he’s bitterly mocking his own obsequiousness to patrons, the miming heightens expression; otherwise, it’s superfluous. Here and there, Cumming will strike a pose that conveys character and meaning — hand-on-hip in front of a Highland vista — but the extended dance sequences, gesturing at farm work or Highland style, are limp. No poetry, no burn.

That core flaw leaves Cumming floundering, fluctuating between goofy and maudlin. The story of Burns is that of a man and artist struggling against the restraints of poverty and propriety. But Cumming — usually such a charming, irreverent performer — seems trapped here: in the medicalized concept of personality, in the decision to do a dance show. He’s miscast himself.


Through Sunday at the Joyce Theater;

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