Theatre: Was Robert Burns a misogynistic sex pest?

Gillian Duffy

Gillian Duffy

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First published in The Herald

IF RABBIE Burns were alive right now there’s a real chance he would be cancelled, deemed a toxic misogynist.

His many pin-ball relationships and the confusion as to his offspring count suggests he was well out of the Boris league. Poet Liz Lochhead has even compared Burns with Hollywood sex pest Harvey Weinstein.

And, of course, there is his connection with slavery. Burns, at one point considered life on a Jamaican plantation, working as a ‘negro driver.’ Yet, he was also a democrat, who wrote the paean to egalitarianism, A Man’s A Man For a’ That.

For all that, there’s a sense you’d be better talking to Whoopi Goldberg about racism in the context of the Holocaust than taking relationship advice from the Bard.

Yet, none of that has stopped Irish writer Gillian Duffy coming up with a comedy play featuring Burns that allows us to take an overview of the social mores of the late 18th century – and blend them wonderfully with today’s value system.

The Ghosting of Rabbie Burns follows heartbroken author Emily Winters as she travels to her aunt’s cottage in Ayrshire to stop thinking about her philandering ex.

As she celebrates Burns Night alone, Emily dreams the right man will one day come into her life. Suddenly, she experiences a visitation. It’s the ghost of Rabbie Burns who stands before her, not some random. And the pair talk of love and romance and compare his world to hers. And he even offers up dating advice.

Duffy loved the idea of contrasting values, and interpreting Burns via her ghost device. “I knew the poems and Auld Lang Syne, and I knew a bit about all the women, but I didn’t know anything about his character,” she explains. “It was only when I started to delve into his personal story, that I got interested. Really interested.”

She adds, laughing: “I became a bit obsessed with him, to be honest. Maybe I was one of his lovers in a previous life.”

Duffy, who studied English literature and history, loved the idea of writing about a real-life historical figure. “That was really something that appealed to me.” Certainly, the concept that love and its confusions are universal and timeless also appealed.

The play stars Gill McGowan and Colin McGowan, a married couple in real life, who will offer audiences the chance to make their minds up about the Bard.

They won’t have 300 pics of Rabbie getting drunk and partying with his friends pals to help make up their minds, but the argument will allow for an understanding of the man and his motives.

But what if Burns were alive today, would he be on Tinder? Would he be hitting and running, grasping and ghosting? Or would he be reflective – saying “I get it. I’ll fix it.” And really mean it?

The Ghosting of Rabbie Burns, Cumbernauld Theatre, February 12, The Tivoli Theatre in Aberdeen, February 15, Oran Mor Glasgow February 13 and 14.;

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