Alex Massie

Oh Caledonia!

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Paul Higgins as William Paterson in Alistair Beaton's Caledonia.

To Edinburgh yesterday to see the flagship indigenous production at this year's Festival: Alistair Beaton's play about the Darien misadventure in the late 17th century. For a dramatist this should be much more fertile ground than were the mangrove swamps of Panama for the poor would-be colonists. It was a national adventure swallowing up, by some estimates, as much as half the national wealth which makes it all the more infuriating that Caledonia is both so glib and so very heavy-handed. Leaving the theatre my immediate sensation was one of a great opportunity badly, foolishly missed.

Half-way through proceedings it occurred to me that Beaton considers the attempt to establish a trading colony in Panama a kind of precursor to another more recent Latin American fiasco: the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. So it was depressing, but not altogether surprising, that once the curtain fell the all-too immortal strains of Ally's Tartan Army was piped through to shepherd the audience out the theatre. Och, can we no do anything right?

Glib as this comparison may be it was consistent with the tenor of a production that lacked the courage or seriousness of its subject. To call it an uneven theatrical experience is to be kind. Only occasionally did the pathos of the tragedy - for such it was - hit home; instead vast quantities of energy were spent pursuing cheap laughs at the expense of troughing politicians and reckless, speculative bankers.

Indeed, the production appeared to endorse twin pathologies that have long afflicted Scotland. On the one hand this small country is too tiny, too impoverished and too damned hopeless to have any grounds upon which to suppose it could ever amount to anything; on the other everyone else is out to get us and deny Scotland her rightful place and reward.

That English hostility - and specifically that of the East India Company - helped doom Darien is certainly part of the story; that reckless, not to say appalling, planning also played its part is another. But Beaton's play goes further than suggesting that a certain quality of hubris - most notably on the part of William Paterson, founder of the Bank of England and chief advocate for the trading colony - played a part in the misery of the failure and argues, implicitly anyway, that it was stupid for Scotland to ever even dream of such a venture anyway. For Beaton, Darien seems to be something that must be mocked and trivialised, not a tragic - that is both pitiful and terrible - moment of what might have been.

And in taking this approach he robs the adventure of its humanity and pathos. Matters aren't helped by some dreadful singing and over-acting that owes much to the music hall. It's as though the production can't trust its subject matter - or the audience - and so retreats to pantomime and in so doing both trivialises its subject matter and robs it of its humanity.

I don't know Beaton's politics but on the evidence of this play he's Ancient Labour. Capitalism itself is the villain in Caledonia and dreams of improvement simply folly. Consequently, even as he mocks (or traduces) the Kirk Beaton is every bit as censorious as the most mean-spirited Minister. We may all be sinners but Beaton thinks we're all also fools.

Paterson, after all, was right. It was trade that built Glasgow (and to some extent Edinburgh) and his vision of a land-route between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans was entirely sensible. That they chose the wrong place or that it didn't work only adds to the tragedy of the enterprise. But its failure didn't mean it was always folly from the start or that it need be treated, as this play too often does, as farce three hundred years later. 

There's a great play to be written about Darien. This isn't it.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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