Caledonia, King's Theatre
Tuesday 24 August 2010
Alistair Beaton's new play has a thumping big subject in the Darien scheme, the 1698 plan to establish a Scottish trading colony on the isthmus of Panama. Huge amounts of money were raised before the colony collapsed through disease, bad management and corruption. There were long-term effects on Scottish finances and politics – the union with England followed shortly afterwards – and obvious parallels with the recent banking crisis.
Caledonia is both thorough and heavy-handed in covering those themes. Beaton cuts between stodgy exposition and easy jokes about greedy MPs and bankers. There's a theatrical flourish to his use of songs, though the lyrics are weak.
The real words of William Paterson, leader of the scheme, sing out in Beaton's text. His image of the colony as "the door of the seas, the key of the universe" shows you why investors rushed to hand over their money. When Beaton takes over, poor Paterson sinks into fortune-cookie wisdom: "We all dream, it's what you do with your dream that matters".
Nevertheless, Anthony Neilson's production is energetic and often stylish. Peter McKintosh's set puts the cast behind footlights, with steep theatrical perspectives. Sails and 18th-century maps evoke the journey and the new world. Paul Higgins makes a dashing, charismatic Paterson and there's strong support from Matthew Pidgeon and from Paul Blair as a Calvinist preacher, framed by Neilson in beatific light or hints of brimstone.
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