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The Tree Of Knowledge

Jo Clifford
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
(2011)

Gerry Mulgrew as David Hume, Joanna Tope as Eve and Neil McKinven as Adam Smith in The Tree of Knowledge. Photo by Laurence Winram

Jo Clifford's new play was a commission while a creative fellow at Edinburgh University but it is no dry academic work. It takes a look at the modern world through the eyes of two of Scotland's greatest thinkers whose ideas have shaped the world we live in, for better or worse. It brings two long-dead men very much back to life and thrusts them right into the thick of the twenty-first century.

Two central figures of the Scottish Enlightenment now cast in bronze on Edinburgh's the Royal Mile, Adam Smith (Neil McKinven) and David Hume (Gerry Mulgrew), one famous for his views on economics—in particular the good of a free market—and the other a philosopher, historian and vocal atheist. Much of today's capitalism and rationalism can, it is argued, be traced back to the works of these two men.

There is only one other character, the much more recently deceased Eve (Joanne Tope); she is their guide like Beatrice in Dante's Divine Comedy or perhaps more like Virgil as Messrs Smith and Hume's first happy impressions prove unfounded. Eve, with her gentleness and modern sensibilities, also acts as someone who can speak for us and allow us to answer the two long-deceased academics' questions of our world. Tope also adds a warmth that is needed amidst the manic excitement of Smith and the, at times, pontificating Hume.

In a space that looks like part of the modern wing of the National Museum of Scotland, Smith at first finds a paradise of freedom far removed from the repressive society and mother of his life time. He surfs the net for flesh, hits the gay clubs and makes use of the market for illegal drugs. McKinven is all energy, a child let loose in a brave new world—you can almost see his fall coming. In the end he discovers child porn on the internet and that casual sex is no substitute for love. He rails against the banks, to much audience approval, part of his philosophy that is overlooked by many current capitalists.

Hume is not so taken in and is unimpressed not just by Smith's degeneracy but also by the banality of Eve's home and lifestyle. Eve, though, reveals a deeper tragedy to her life, not one linked particularly to ideas or time, that of the abuse she has suffered both growing up with an abusive father who beat her mother and her own abuse at the hands of her husband.

Jo Clifford somehow wrestles an optimistic message out of these three personal tragedies that reflect much wider tragedies in our world. There is a kind of Pandora's Box moment at the end and in two lovely little speeches; Mulgrew who exudes a philosophical wisdom and Tope with her frankness leave us feeling at least not entirely lost.

Ends Saturday 24 December

Reviewer: Seth Ewin