Theatre: Review: Money matters

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The Independent Culture
THE NAME John Law did not feature in any of those lists of "great Scots" that were published in the press before last May's Scottish parliamentary elections. But, as David Greig's new play The Speculator demonstrates, this 18th-century figure has an incontrovertible right to be up there with John Knox, Sean Connery and Moira Anderson. Law invented the concept of paper currency and for 500 days in the 1720s, he was probably the richest man in the world. Thanks to a scheme, which eventually collapsed, for buying shares in Mississippi land, he wielded more power than any absolute monarch.

No one could accuse Greig's play of being a pacey or conventional historical drama. The revolutionary ideas are turning the world upside down, but it's less a sense of this that you're given than an appreciation of how Law's radical thinking made the world feel weightless in a curiously post- structuralist way. He tried to sever the connection between the signifier and the signified: a banknote and the gold that should back it up. Paper currency represented unlimited desire, and America, being a blank, puts up no resistance to this notion of infinite promise.

In a play that's full of pointed anachronisms, one of the characters suddenly appears in leather astride a huge Harley-Davidson, berating the bewigged 18th-century bods for the lack of imagination that prevents them from mounting it and zooming across the prairies of a fresh world.

There's next to no forward-drive in The Speculator. Philip Howard's strangely uninvolving production could help matters by being less evenly paced and a good deal cheekier, but then a piece which often feels more like a cantata of conceit than a drama would work better in a studio space than marooned on the Lyceum's unforgiving main stage.

Greig brings David Rintoul's rather colourless Law into contact with the dramatist Marivaux, whom he commissions to write a play to allay the public's doubts about his new system. But Marivaux's plain, rich wife (Pauline Knowles) too overtly represents the Gold Standard, her wealth the dead weight that enables and restricts her spouse, deterring him from taking flight with his true amour. Only Billy Boyd, who gives a delightful performance as the love-besotted, spendthrift 16-year-old Lord Islay, engages the emotions. Not a play, you reckon, that is ever going to be a licence to print money.

Paul Taylor To 20 Aug, 0131 473 2000