Dr Johnson Goes To Scotland
Oran Mor, Glasgow
Play, Pie, Pint
24th-29th October 2016
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Written by James Runcie and directed by Marilyn Imrie, Dr Johnson Goes to Scotland was presented at the Oran Mor, A Play, A Pie, and A Pint, in association with the Traverse Theatre, provides an alternative look at the travel of Samuel Johnson, most famously known as the author of the English Dictionary (commonly referred to as The Johnston Dictionary), throughout Scotland in 1773.
As the 1987 hilarious comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles follows the adventures of a travelling salesman and his journey home to his family, Dr Johnson Goes to Scotland, brilliantly compresses Samuel ‘Dictionary’ Johnson’s 87 days of carriage, horseback and boat into an hour of adventure, laughter and lovely Gaelic singing, with refreshingly simple yet effective use of stage and the actors.
Looking to experience the primate and wild Scotland of stories foretold, Johnson (Simon Donaldson) embarks upon a journey of Scotland with his good friend and scots born James Boswell (Lewis Howden) only to see his view and beliefs change as he is welcomed, treated with openness and warmth by those he encounters, eager to express their pride of being Scottish, their languages and culture.
Johnson a believer of the superiority of the English Language, begins his journey in Edinburgh, and with Boswell as his translator, dives into the scots culture, the languages of Scots, Gaelic and early British Sign Language. After initial introduction to the language of Scots in Edinburgh, he travels by horse and carriage to Aberdeen where he encounters the language of Gaelic, and as they attempt to communicate we are treated to a hilariously scene of Johnson trying to request a bed for the night. With crude and basic hand gestures and signs, only for the bewildered woman, aghast at the prospect of a ‘threesome’ with Johnson and Boswell. Leaving the audience around me chuckling heartily at Johnson attempts to undo this misunderstanding.
Superbly supported by Gerda Stevenson, Morna Young and Ciaran Alexander Stewart, as the people he encounters throughout his journey we see Johnson treated to all things Scottish including food, tartan, whisky, and the best use of shortbread I have seen.
By boat he travels to the Isle of Skye where he wholeheartedly expresses his gratitude for the experience of the communication of sign language. He is genuinely in awe and wonders how someone (Ciaran Alexander Young) can communicate so well when they have never heard the spoken word. But not all his experience were enjoyable and he did find some of the journeys tedious and was quoted as saying ‘Journeys made in this manner are rather tedious and long. A very few miles requires several hours”, and he deplored the depopulation of the Highlands.
The haunting beautiful Gaelic signing of Stevenson and Young, combined with the enjoyment of watching the actors perform all the roles of the play, from the clippity-clopping horses and carriage, the swaying boat as it crossed to Skye, to the stall ladies selling their ware, the simple yet effective use of the stage only adds to the experience of Johnson journey.
Johnson clearly began his journey with a pre-conceived ideas of the Scots, primitive, uneducated, aggressive and uncouth, we watch as he warms to the Scots, impressed by their humour and resilience and pride for all things Scottish, despite the harshness of the lands, the humble and poor living surroundings, people expressed a warmth and kindness he was not anticipating .
Interestingly given the current world challenges around mass migration of people and immigration, this play does allow you to explore the connection between the language of a people, their culture and how it shapes their beliefs and desire to share it with others. How do you communicate, express yourself, and connect with others, be able share of yourself. You are most definitely left with the feeling of the Scots being openhearted, embracing their culture and heritage, proud to be scots and of their language.
Well written, well performed this play will provide you with an unforgettable journey into the maybe the final conclusion as in Johnson words – ‘No dictionary can define a nation.’
Reviewer : Kathleen Cooper