A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle
Made up of over 2,500 lines, Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle can safely be labelled a long poem. Written in Scots, its length gives ample opportunity for MacDiarmid’s 1926 stream of consciousness to explore a wide array of topics – political, cultural, sexual and scientific – explored from the nationalist/communist perspective of the writer as he contemplates what Scotland is all about.
In setting it to music, originally for Glasgow’s 1992 Mayfest, composer Bill Sweeney has condensed the poem to a manageable length of just over an hour. ‘If it was all to be set to music,’ he says, ‘we’d be there for ever! But, although the text is edited down, it’s all in the right order and there is an overall shape to it, starting off with MacDiarmid’s rant against Burns’ culture.’ At that point, the poem is witty, funny and comical, but, as Sweeney explains, ‘It then descends into different depths. He’s sober and straightforward, but then drunk and obscene, then very beautiful.’
Scored for narrator – Scottish actor Crawford Logan in Red Note Ensemble’s new production – along with nine-piece instrumental ensemble including the composer himself on jazz clarinet and Chick Lyall on piano, there’s also solo baritone and a trio of female voices. ‘I’ve tried to find a musical rhythm,’ says Sweeney, ‘in terms of styles and pacing, while not being overtly theatrical.’
Although MacDiarmid’s words were written over 80 years ago, they remain uncannily relevant to present-day Scotland. ‘I think that contemporary audiences, if they open themselves up,’ says Sweeney, ‘will get quite a jolt by recognising themselves as freshly as when the poem was first written. It’s about the psychology of being Scottish and the same sort of psychological characteristics that make up the Scottish character are still recognisable today.’
Red Note Ensemble, RSAMD, Glasgow, Fri 4 Jun; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Wed 9 Jun