Edinburgh Fringe Review: Doubting Thomas @ Summerhall

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5 STARS

The story of redemption is an old one. The blood-soaked man who sees the light, changes his ways, repents. It is a familiar, even fairly comfortable narrative arc. Yet nothing feels remotely comfortable in this outstanding work of theatre. For Doubting Thomas is not a dramatic exercise in catharsis, dreamt up by playwrights who fancy themselves as contemporary heirs of Greek theatre. Doubting Thomas is not a simple progression from ‘bad’ to ‘good’, because what real human life can be reduced to such black and white terms? And this is, crucially, the story of a real human life. ‘Doubting Thomas’ is Thomas McCrudden, Glasgow gangster, turned prisoner, turned performer, who now stands on stage before the audience’s eyes. As the story of a real blood-soaked man, told from his flesh and blood lips, it is more powerful and compelling than any imaginary transformation tale.

This is award-winning director Jeremy Weller’s forte – taking remarkable lives and devising remarkable pieces of theatre, to reveal the drama that constantly surrounds us. He specialises in immersive, inclusive theatre, that puts individuals centre stage. It is theatre of both the personal and the grand scale. In this sense he is a true contemporary heir of Greek tragedy, as his pieces reveal the intense power and pathos of supposedly ‘ordinary’ modern lives. It surely speaks volumes that Sarah Kane said that seeing his work changed her life.

While life-changes are clearly central to Weller’s work, the fact two of his major proponents are Kane and Lars von Trier gives some suggestion that these transformations are far from tame. There is no avoiding the brutality of  Doubting Thomas; violence seethes throughout this piece. As Thomas himself admits, he has committed almost every act of violence imaginable – beatings, stabbings, slashings, you name it, he’s probably done it. Domestic abuse, prison brawls and suicide are all held up unflinchingly. How did a man so addicted to violence his peers likened him to a fighting street dog get to be standing under the glare of stage lights? Well, as Thomas suggests, it is more of a natural progression than may first meet the eye. For, in his words, he has been acting his whole life, putting on masks and filling roles “none of which was me!”

It is this idea that provides much of the poignancy and emotional impact of the piece. It is an intricate study of how those who society most fears are often the ones most filled with fear themselves. It is a story of worthlessness and desperation. Reared in poverty, never shown love, relegated to society’s fringes – is it really surprising that gang violence seems to offer glamour and the allure of power? It is a story of lost boys desperately playing the part of hard man. It is an old story, but here it feels viscerally raw and necessary.

(originally for Crows Nest Zine )

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