“Burn”, Alan Cumming, Edinburgh International Festival

Maggie Rose in Edinburgh
8 August 2022

For four decades, international artist and celebrity Alan Cumming has successfully turned his hand to theatre, cabaret, comedy musicals, film and television. He is no newcomer to the Edinburgh Festival and many will recall his cabaret double act, Victor and Barry, a regular Fringe item in the 1980s.


Photo credit: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan.


In 2007 he was a memorable Dionysus in The Bacchae at the Edinburgh International Festival.  He’s back this year at the Edinburgh International Festival (King’s Theatre) with Burn, an original piece of total theatre, devoted to Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns.

In a programme note, Cumming describes how he wanted to get away from the usual take on Burns, the ‘ploughman poet’, whose adventurous life and love affairs have been the object of so much debate and many stage adaptations.

Instead, he explores in this production the poet’s frequent states of depression and mood swings, what literary critics today agree to have been a form of bipolar disorder.

An undoubtedly generous budget from the Festival, National Theatre of Scotland and New York’s Joyce Theater, has allowed Cumming to work with a creative team of international professionals who excel in their fields. A set by Ana Inés Jabares-Pita is a stripped back monochrome design containing a single antique desk stacked with papers, underscoring the poet’s psychological isolation. Women’s shoes and a beautiful flowing dress magically descend from on high, allowing the poet to converse with some of his female friends and patrons.

Sound and lighting effects conjure up a thunderstorm and a snowy landscape, suggesting the tumultuous Scottish weather, as an exterior counterpart to the poet’s troubled mind. This ever-changing place, accompanied by Anne Meridith’s contemporary music, where Burns’s turmoil can be played out, proves a rich springboard for our imagination.

Onstage a single actor-dancer, Alan Cumming, who as we are informed by Andrzej Goulding’s video (which provides dates and locations to what amounts to a chronology of Burns’s life), will pronounce only words from the poet’s letters and poems.

Under the guidance of choreographers Steven Hoggett and Vicki Manderson, Cumming’s dance, a mix of hand, arm and head gestures, quick turns and stretches, gives physical shape to Burn’s aspirations and anxieties – the fear of poverty never left him even when his talent had been recognized.

Cumming, who now lives in New York, grew up in a rural environment on the east coast of Scotland where Robert Burns was very much part of his young life. In Burn, his affinity with Burns, the rebel and innovator, shines through, with the play finishing on a defiant note: “And still my motto is: I dare.”