I Am Thomas
Told By An Idiot
National Theatre of Scotland, Told By An Idiot, Royal Lyceum Theatre in association with the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse
Wilton's Music Hall
The student Thomas Aikenhead was, in 1697 at the age of twenty, the last person to be executed in Britain for blasphemy. Among the things he was supposed to have said which led to his execution was the claim that "theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense". Had he been able to attend a performance of Told By An Idiot’s I Am Thomas, then he might easily have applied those words to this show.
The story is shallow and confused. The songs are pleasant enough but lightweight. They often seem only vaguely connected to the story. The dialogue is slight, clumsy and occasionally ridiculous. There is no attempt at characterisation. Indeed every actor has a go at playing Thomas, without revealing anything about his psychology, history, politics or anything else. We might all in desperation have sung along with the chorus line of one of the songs "Thomas Aikenhead, who the fuck are you?"
The show is pitched as a comedy but no one seemed to laugh during the performance I attended. It was even difficult to work out what was meant to be funny. The clichéd football commentators discussing Aikenhead’s execution may have been, the imitation sheep running about probably, but was the mysterious appearance of Albert Einstein supposed to be funny?
In fact there was a lot that seemed unintentionally mysterious about this show. Who were the men in trenchcoats who mimed climbing through a window into Aikenhead’s house before going outside and knocking on his door, and why was the story yanked from its seventeenth century setting to 1970s Britain?
The switch did allow them to introduce the Sex Pistols into the story. During the most inept police interrogation of a prisoner ever conceived, the interrogator confronts the prisoner Aikenhead with the evidence of his crimes which include his possession of records by The Sex Pistols, Bob Dylan and Gil Scott Heron.
Tapes of heretical songs he had sung at a pub open mic night are played and, to add a bit of predictable humour to the interview, the officer mixes up the tapes. Aikenhead is also told by the police that he will be a fugitive, though given the cell is quite small he won’t have much space to flee in.
By the end of the show, we may have very little idea what was going on but every actor has had a turn at being the "I am Thomas" character and, just to bring the message up to date, they finish the show by all wearing T shirts emblazoned with that slogan except for one of them. He wore a t-shirt bearing the words "Je Suis Thomas". As they all sang a song of celebration, he died.
The murder by the state of Thomas Aikenhead is a cruelty that should be remembered. Not just because it is an injustice that should never have taken place, but because others continue to be hounded by the state. There are currently academics and students who are campaigning against the Government’s threatened persecution of thought crimes under the Prevent strategy.
On the 21st of April, the United Nations issued a statement to the British Government which includes the following: "it is difficult to define the term 'non-violent extremist' without treading into the territory of policing thought and opinion. Innocent individuals will be targeted. Many more will fear that they may be targeted—whether because of their skin colour, religion or political persuasion—and be fearful of exercising their rights. Both outcomes are unacceptable."
The story and cause of Thomas Aikenhead continues. It is only a pity that the show I am Thomas fails to tell that story or its importance for us today.
Reviewer: Keith Mckenna