Image by Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
“It is with wry humour, almost touched with disappointment, that the 1987-89 history of Confessions is presented.”
This intriguing piece is ‘reconstructed’ by Untitled Projects. Any reassuring solidity provided by co-producers, National Theatre of Scotland, is shaky for this is a bit of a shape-shifter. It provides dramatic form, of that multi-media sort, to James Hogg’s astonishing Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, published anonymously in 1824, and to the afflicted, near mad, efforts of actor/director Paul Bright in the late 1980s to put this resurgent, mind-bending, novel onto some kind of stage. It helps a lot if you accept the invitation to go to the four room exhibition – downstairs at the Summerhall – both before and after the show. It’s stark down there but there is much of real interest: archive film footage; Fringe fliers, past reviews, stuffed corbies – that substantiate what you will see/ have seen. And there’s a welcome wee dram to close with.
The host – actor George Anton – does it all, introducing Hogg’s book, introducing himself, meditating on acting, chronicling the history of Bright’s work, playing Bright in impassioned bursts, telling of their time together. He is well qualified to do so as Bright’s co-actor in three (of six ‘Episodes’ of the Confessions) and as his friend, which was clearly – in retrospect at least – one hell of a job.
A large screen assists all the while, showing captions, film – mostly grainy, jumpy and silent – various artefacts, and here-and-now interviews with others who knew and worked with Bright. If you know the book, then the split-screen, Gilmartin/Wringhim, Bright/Anton, doppelgänger scenes are especially successful; not least when you learn that Bright (brought up in Ettrick; but that is Ettrick, Kwa-Zulu Natal, & not Hogg’s Ettrick near Selkirk) had a twin brother who drowned when they were swimming together.
Bright protested Nature above Psychology and he would have his theatre ‘alive, dirty and dangerous’ and that does act against this production which is more intelligent composition, reflective anecdote and report than anything more forward or disturbing. It is with wry humour, almost touched with disappointment, that the 1987-89 history of Confessions is presented. The third Episode, ‘Trials’, was staged at the Queen’s Hall as original Scottish drama and as part of the Edinburgh International Festival . It was a ghastly trial for everyone, lasting nine hours and was a disaster: ‘an incomprehensible and pretentious assault on Scotland’s literary heritage’ was John Gross’s opinion in the Sunday Telegraph.
Unsurprisingly the last Episode 6, ‘The Road to the Suicide’s Grave,’ never happened. However, here’s the real, valedictory, reconstruction that this production achieves. Paul Bright died in Brussels in 2010 at the age of forty-seven and up on the screen appears a fair sized box that George Anton got in the post from Belgium. It contained personal effects: notebooks, sketches, Bright’s copy of Hogg’s Confessions and a tape from a telephone answering machine. Listen to the message on that tape, watch the appreciably long final sequence and you understand that it is all underscored by affection for a lost friend who could not let go of an impossible project.
‘What can this work be?’ asks Hogg’s editor at the end of the sinner’s memoirs. ‘I cannot tell’ is his conclusion. Actor George Anton, writer Pamela Carter and director Stewart Laing create something more tangible of Paul Bright’s Confessions and in the end more definitive.