Bonnie Prince Charlie and Casanova are more usual 18th century subjects for drama than Adam Smith. A swash here, a buckle there, BPC and Casanova provide kilts and razzamatazz – but when it comes to intellectual rigour they’re a bit lacking. For a play with more emphasis on the enlightenment than lovers and battles, Adam Smith is an interesting choice. He was an important member of the Scottish intelligentsia in the 18th century and is famous for writing the first great book of economic analysis, The Wealth of Nations. He also coined the phrase the Invisible Hand to refer to…well, what exactly is one of the subjects of this play. Unlike other 18th century ideas (leeches, anyone?) Smith’s thought is still well regarded and he is often the subject of economics lectures and articles. Where he is not often to be found is in the theatre, which makes Compagnie Les Labyrinthes’ Adam Smith Le Grand Tour a unique proposition.
As a fan of Grand Tour literature I was looking forward to this new play by the academic Vanessa Oltra. Adam Smith undertook a truncated Tour, not making it to the great goals of Firenze, Roma and Venezia but staying in France and Geneva. The play is billed as an invitation to follow in the economist’s footsteps, however this is not a straight forward reenactment. Rather it is an interpretation by two actors using questions about the life of Adam Smith as a pretext for a tour around Edinburgh. Oltra aimed not to report on the journey, but to examine the thoughts and sensations that she experienced. This is presented to the audience as a mixture of live action and moving image, which is projected onto the simple white scenery. The same actors appear on stage and in the videos where they visit locations pertinent to Smith’s life, playing roles of detectives, tourists and reporters.
This piece is located on the boundary between performance art and theatre. Starring Frederic Kneip and the writer, the production is directed by Gerard David. It would not be out of place in a contemporary art gallery. Vanessa Oltra has an unusual background, being an associate professor of Economics at the University Montesquieu-Bordeaux, but also having studied at the Conservatoire d’Art dramatique in Merignac. The casting of an economist as actor asks further questions of the role of economists in the world and comments on the quality of the knowledge they peddle.
There are often issues with a piece of work that has been translated from another language. Humour is notorious for not making the leap between languages and references in the programme suggest that it is funnier in French than it is in English. The language choice is presumably because a play about Adam Smith in French would have had limited appeal in Edinburgh but there is no compelling conceptual reason for the production to be in English. The use of French actors was necessary for the reverse-Tour conceit, but some of the words are heavily accented and difficult to follow.
Most fringe productions are put on in dark cellars underneath pubs but Adam Smith Le Grand Tour is being performed in a well proportioned first-floor room at the Institute francais d’Ecosse. It’s almost certainly the most elegant room being used at the 2013 fringe.
Although I felt it lacked dramatic impetus, Adam Smith Le Grand Tour is experimental and is unafraid to grasp at new subjects and means of portrayal. As such it represents the sort of noble, non-commercial venture the fringe needs.
until 26 August
Institut français d’Ecosse
13 Randolph Crescent