There was a glorious informality to this major restaging of the oldest known play in Scotland's dramatic history, presented as part of a major research project involving the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Edinburgh University and Historic Scotland.
Before a cast of almost 40 actors wrestled with the full five-hour version of Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount's sixteenth-century Scots-language epic, they milled about in the sunshine next to the outdoor playing area set against the dramatic backdrop of Linlithgow Palace itself. While some were in full period costume, others, presumably not scheduled to appear onstage for a couple of hours, were in dressed-down modern-day civvies.
While not deliberate, seeing the centuries brush up against each other so casually gave a hint of just how much Lyndsay's play addresses the here-and-now of a Scotland on the brink.
When the play itself began, with the audience sitting on the grass inside a circular wooden construction that linked three main playing areas via a catwalk, it was with a fanfare from John Sampson's trumpet.
Sampson formed part of a six-piece band led by composer John Kielty, that underscored the action with a medieval-sounding mandolin and flute-based soundtrack. What followed, as James Mackenzie's king is led astray by the corrupt forces of church, state and commerce, is a bawdy, Technicolor cartoon-like pageant. The rogues, charlatans and gold-diggers may get all the laughs, but there are some deadly serious points being made beyond the knockabout first-half of Greg Thompson's production.
While one of these is undoubtedly the reclaiming of Lyndsay's rich and playful text, which comes complete with profanities intact, even greater political significance comes into play. This happens largely in the second half, which follows Lynday's original Interlude, in which Davie McKay's Pauper steps out from the crowd to show the real effects of poverty. While it is left to Tam Dean Burn's angel-winged Divine Correction, Alison Peebles's Verity and Gerda Stevenson's Good Counsel to give the court its moral compass back, it is Keith Fleming's revolutionary firebrand, John The Common weal, who takes real action.
Here then, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that breathed fresh life into Lyndsay's text that took it away from the perceived dryness of academic study and the heritage industry with the ribald playfulness which Thompson's top-notch cast brought to it.
Lyndsay's most important message with The Three Estates is that opportunists in power will be found out, and can be deposed by the people they serve. In this way, even if he lets a few chancers off the hook, Lyndsay is highlighting a thinking that is utterly contemporary, in which change, constitutional or otherwise, is not exacted from on high, but from the slow-burning grassroots movement of the common man and woman.
Power to the people, then, in what just might be the most urgent and radically up-to-the-minute play around right now.
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