Touched by Fire

Fri 7th – Sat 29th August 2015


Julia Pritchard

at 02:08 on 11th Aug 2015



Depicting the trials and tribulations of Lord Byron’s sexuality, relationships and of course, poetry, new show ‘Touched by Fire’ written by Annie James describes itself as ‘mad, bad and dangerous’. While I’m not sure the latter applies, the first two are certainly applicable.

The ridiculousness of what was to come became evident from the opening scene. Following a weird Nickelback-esque song choice playing the audience in (a tad out of place at a show regarding an 18th century poet), two masked, robed men got down to business and embarked on oral sex within the first three minutes of the show starting – a definite and far-fetched shock to those watching.

In terms of performance, the word ‘clumsy’ springs to mind with regard to all three actors involved. Chris Begg’s lines as the physician were incredibly pitchy, even as a male performer. Johnny Cameron as Fletcher stumbled over his lines on far too many occasions and Jamie Rodden as Byron was stiffer than an ironing board, his arm gestures and royal swagger sadly more reminiscent of the tin man, than the young, frisky Byron. Emotion exerted by Rodden as he suffered sexual struggles failed to translate, due to the lack of pauses and general effort to adapt his vocal and facial expression to ones of pain or feeling, making a potentially fascinating story appear heavy and dreary.

As if this wasn’t tedious enough, each member of the audience was given a mask to wear during the show, so that Lord Byron is unable to recognise any of his citizens (of course). These masks turned out to be completely irrelevant to the performance, meaning we were sat in discomfort for almost the piece’s entirety. We were eventually asked to remove them to prevent exacerbating Byron’s paranoia, but in the same sort of manner as a mate would ask you to pass them their phone, or your neighbour asking you to keep the noise down. In other words, with no particular sense of urgency or fear that you would expect a character to be feeling in that position.

The script writing of Annie James can be commended. It was clear that she had really done her research as an evident die-hard Byron fan, inserting all sorts of niche references and specified personal interests, such as his drink of choice, and many lines of his striking and undoubtedly beautiful poetry.

Whilst it’s clear that the show stems from a place of passion, enthusiasm and admiration for the works of Lord Byron, this is somehow all lost on the way from page to stage, sadly leaving the end result disappointing.


Laurie Atkinson

at 09:33 on 11th Aug 2015



Byron biography Touched by Fire succumbs to the temptations of the Romantic enigma in all its Heathcliff-ian cliché. The poet himself would no doubt be quietly satisfied with Annie James's mad, bad, slave to excess, but for a show apparently so invested in the Byronic psyche, Touched by Fire fails to offer either nuance or imagination in its depiction of a figure more Muse than man.

The tone is set by the masks handed to the audience as they enter theSpace on the Mile - "lest m'lord should recognise you". How Gothic! Just what you'd expect of the Venetian Carnival. Yet Quids In Theatre Company is rather too content to milk our expectations of the stanza-spinning, melancholy-mongering rioter. James has emptied a folio's-worth of quotes, biography, and even a letter to Byron-contemporary Tom Hobhouse into a script less lyrical than it is bloated.

Perhaps this indulgent writing could be tolerated were it not for the manner in which it is performed. Byron (Jamie Rodden) himself can be credited for wrapping his mouth around line after line of purple prose, but Jonny Cameron delivers his contrived Mephistophelian physician with all the diabolical believability of Dad's Army's Fraser. The excess extends to the staging. Billowous cloaks and clumsy struggles between Byron and Fletcher (Chris Begg) make mischief with a set littered with unnecessary books and chairs, and the audience can only wince as dropped masks and popped buttons add to the debris.

Yet Touched by Fire's most disappointing aspect is its abject failure to challenge the hackneyed view of Byron it propounds. The poet as we know him - solitary, seductive, sodomizing - is far from one-dimensional, yet has been flattened by familiarity to today's tired Byronic parody of himself. Any attempt to engage with Byron 'the man' must at least attempt a critique of an image that is largely the product of shrewd self-publicity in his lifetime, and the Victorian sentimentalism that fuels his legacy. But more interested in sexual tension, and the therapeutic powers of poetry, than any extraction of the man from the Juan, Touched by Fire squanders the opportunity to engage with a subject no less libidinous, equally arrogant, but harrowingly human.

Much of the Fringe's value and appeal lies in the variety of its programme. Literary biography has as much place on Edinburgh's stages as improvised puppetry. It is a great shame then that Touched by Fire does the genre such disservice - a show that wants a hero, but that settles for a sham.


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