Confessions of a Justified Sinner
Mark Thomson tells Suzanne Black why James Hogg’s great ecclesiastical thriller Confessions of a Justified Sinner is more resonant today than ever before
‘If I kill people, if I kill children, if I blow up civilians, if I am in the service of God in my actions then I’m a martyr and I’m justified.’ Mark Thomson, artistic director of the Lyceum, is talking about the main character in his new adaptation of James Hogg’s 1824 ecclesiastical thriller, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but the rational justification of extreme violence, the rhetoric of religious fundamentalism, is familiar to us from the news today.
Hogg’s gothic novel is one of the first in a long line of artworks uncovering the dark psyche of Scotland, influencing Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and remaining visible in the public’s appetite for Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels and TV crime thrillers such as Taggart. The righteous Robert Wringham, brought up by his Reverend father to believe he is morally beyond reproach, is led into increasingly extreme acts of violence by the mysterious Gil-Martin. The influential tempter is variously asserted to be the Devil, a human and a figment of the imagination. Competing narratives and Hogg’s refusal to provide one overriding explanation lead to an ambiguity that Thomson feels is essential to the experience.
‘I know what I think makes more sense to me but that doesn’t mean it won’t make a different sense to someone else and I must allow them to make sense of it – if it’s just him, if it’s the devil, if he’s mad. What I think is dangerous is if you consign him to madness then the whole thing is just about one madman and I don’t think that’s what Hogg wrote.’
This ambition threw up logistical problems: the challenge of ‘putting doubts under what you’re seeing in front of your eyes.’ Another possible issue is the period setting, rife with Calvinistic doctrine, but Thomson feels that the religious history of the country is so ingrained on the contemporary Scottish psyche (‘it’s grey and granite, it’s cold churches … It’s in our spiritual earth’) that the play exposes something often repressed in our cultural identity. Even at the level of language he found the similarities across centuries and continents to be shocking.
‘We don’t need to work hard to make this connect because the very language that these people are using is the same language as people are using now. So you don’t have to cross centuries or worry about it being archaic, the language is all the “sword of the lord”.’
Ten years ago, when Thomson first staged an adaptation of Justified Sinner, it was a pre-9/11 landscape. The intervening decade has rendered the text even more apposite. ‘We were on high alert. Our theatre was on high alert for periods of time over the last few years. It’s here it’s not somewhere else. The world’s got smaller and it connects up a lot more. So for Scotland read the world. And Scotland would have felt like the world then. It’s very here. None of us can sit back in our armchairs and think it doesn’t concern us. We’re all part of the human race and we’re all having to deal with those extremisms.’
Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, Fri 16 Oct–Sat 7 Nov.