Alan Cumming stars in a dance-drama show about Robert Burns

A strange theme at the start of this year’s Edinburgh festival season has been famous male actors performing dance performances. There’s Ian McKellen, fiery – as a non-dancer – with a ballet version of ‘Hamlet’. And then there’s the International Festival’s ‘Burn’, a one-man dance-drama show about one Scottish icon – Robert Burns – performed by another – Alan Cumming

The play is theoretically inspired by recent academic analysis of the great poet’s works and life, which suggests that Burns may well have been depressed, going through periods of slow desperation and exuberant, hyper-prolific periods.

This essentially gives “Burn” its structure, as it alternates between thundering crescendos – in which Andrzej Goulding’s huge elemental projections, Anna Meredith’s electro-tinged classical score and co-creator Steven Hoggart’s mime movement all beat together – and moments of torpid, exhausted despair where everything collapses.

I would say that amounts to careful structural conceit rather than a thorough re-examination of the man. In fact, “Burn” is a relatively easy chronological journey through the poet’s life and times, using his own words. There’s at least as much time devoted to her feminization as her depression, with Cumming amusingly courting a series of shoes that descend from the ceiling and replace the frankly huge number of women in Burns’ life.

It’s not really a case of Cumming playing Burns. Really, he’s playing the role of Alan Cumming: dressed in black and goth lank hair and eye makeup (i.e. not what Burns looked like unless the portraits miss his emo phase), there are a lot of fourth wall breaking and pranks. He acts as a backup to Burns, but you never really feel he’s trying seriously embody him.

This means that the fact that Cumming was now 20 years older than Burns when he died seems essentially irrelevant. I wonder though if being younger would have allowed him to do more with the physical side of the show. I’ve seen stunning choreography by Hoggart – who co-choreographs with Vicki Manderson – but here it’s pretty restrained, limited to fairly conservative rhythmic movements. I’m sure I’d pass out after trying to follow Cumming for more than five minutes, and he’s got a ton to talk about too. But as a dance performance it’s quite limited which is a shame as it feels like more Stum and Drang moments could really do with something a little more spectacular on a physical level.

Ultimately, ‘Burn’ is an explosive hop, leap and leap through the life of Scotland’s national poet, as presented by your sparkling-eyed host, Alan Cumming. In all honesty, I think it probably stands as something a little higher than that. But it’s a tender tribute that would no doubt have tickled Burns (in one of his good moods, anyway).