Review: Had We Never

First published in the Guardian on 18 August, 2017

Robert Burns asked the question in his love song Ae Fond Kiss: ‘had we never loved sae kindly/ Had we never loved sae blindly”. His conclusion was bittersweet, to do with simple heartbreak. A current exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery applies the same conditional tense to darker scenarios, playing out ‘what ifs’ that cannot be romanticised. What if Scotland’s national bard had gone to Jamaica in the 1780s to profit from the slave trade?

We know he planned to. In 1786 Burns booked himself a ticket to the West Indies, though whether out of financial desperation or to escape a botched love affair is unclear. He didn’t end up going — luck picked up at home — and in 1792 he published a troubled lyric called The Slave’s Lament which imagines a forced journey from Senegal to Virginia. That poem was the starting point for Graham Fagen’s video installation at the 2015 Venice Biennial showing reggae vocalist Ghetto Priest singing Burn’s words to music by Sally Beamish and dub producer Adrian Sherwood played by the Scottish Ensemble.

The piece is sleek and haunting, doubly so when experienced (as you can until the end of October) in the next room to Douglas Gordon’s devastating Black Burns — a mangled sculpture, a dystopian shadow, a truth we’d prefer to ignore. So in a way this late-night International Festival concert didn’t need to add much to make its point. We get a live performance of the Beamish/Sherwood score framed by more Burns songs and new poetry by Jackie Kay. I could gripe about production. Why not turn the lights down? Why not hire a proper chamber organ rather than an electric keyboard? A decent PA? Why not use a rawer-voiced singer than Brian Bannatyne-Scott, whose Ae Fond Kiss was numbingly saccharine? At nearly midnight the atmosphere should have been potent.

But some aspects will linger in my memory. Ghetto Priest’s gruff, tender voice against the sinewy playing of the string trio; Kay’s searing, graceful reading; the stark beauty of countertenor David James singing Arvo Part’s My heart’s in the Highlands. And the implications. Just last month Edinburgh band Young Fathers made a video for the Portrait Gallery questioning all-white portrayals of Scottish history and were subjected to intense racist bile in response. Scotland still has demons to confront. At least this project goes there.