Posted: Thu Aug 26 2010

King's Theatre, Edinburgh International Festival

Alistair Beaton's new satire is about as ambitious as it gets, a scathing portrayal of the Darién scheme - the Kingdom of Scotland's disastrous attempt to become a colonial power - that is also a savaging of contemporary capitalism, that is also a pastiche of the musical theatre format. Its world premiere under the auspices of the National Theatre of Scotland is the centrepiece of this year's EIF, and if 'Caledonia' doesn't quite pull off the many hats it tries to wear, Anthony Neilson's production is no curate's egg.

The year is 1695, the place is Edinburgh's Ship Tavern, and Bank of England-founding Scotsman William Paterson (Paul Higgins) is flourishing his way through a series of 'Les Mis'-style poses as he orders an eyewateringly expensive banquet. It turns out to be for just six MPs, who Paterson soon seduces into setting up a company 'financed by private investment, protected by the state' that will fund Scotland's audacious grab for the Isthmus of Panama, a spot of vast potential wealth (which happens to be surrounded by the Spanish Americas - something the Scots will worry about later).

Higgins's Paterson is an intriguing figure: on the one hand he's a shameless demagogue and inveterate risk taker who neglects his doting wife. On the other, he's a genuinely capable, charismatic man - Beaton almost has you believe the expedition would have succeeded, had every other member of the Scottish ruling classes not been a venal, preening idiot.

Post-'Enron', it's not especially startling that the cod-musical format works. Beaton and Neilson use the genre's stylistic conventions to suggest that razzle dazzle and unreasonable optimism led to this ludicrous enterprise, not any real practicality. It's also a funny way of going about things, freedom from naturalist constraints allowing for all sorts of daft visual gags and vicious contemporary references. There are songs, but they're short and quite tasteful - it's the physical language of musicals that 'Caledonia' co-opts so well.

There's too much historical exposition, and the play's physical inventiveness comes in fits and starts, but Neilson keeps Beaton's slew of ideas under control, finally expelling the silliness for a thunderous final scene that underscores the human cost of this wretched endeavour and others like it.