Devilishly good show reflects on thoughts of John Duns Scotus

The man himself - Ben Foreman as John Dunse Scotus.
The man himself - Ben Foreman as John Dunse Scotus.

A highlight of the Duns Scotus 2016 Festival was the theatrical event You, Dunce, performed by the Duns Players at Duns Volunteer Hall last week.

The challenge to the writer John McEwen, supported by Jules Horne, Karen Thomas and Alex Watson, was to find a way to make John Duns Scotus’s thought accessible.

This was done brilliantly by an almost sketch show format, illustrating aspects of his life and work.

The evening was dominated by Peter Lerpiniere, playing the part of ‘him off the telly’, a Jeremy Paxman-style figure. He interrogated other characters and turned out to be the Devil – betrayed by his bat wing haircut and inability to say the word ‘God’.

Among those subject to his questioning were a couple of men in a pub and Scotus himself, played calmly and collectedly by Ben Foreman, accidentally conjured up by the Devil.

When the questioning of Scotus became too intense, who should come to help out, but his mother? A character straight from Tony Roper’s The Steamie, who, in the hands of Lisa Johnson, not only talked of John’s annoying childhood, but also took time to explain some of his more challenging theological concepts.

She was aided by the creative use of back projection throughout – including a startling photograph of Donald Trump illustrating the idea of family.

The other alarming appearance by a political figure was of Margaret Thatcher (Alex Watson), produced by the Devil to show Scotus what St Francis, who Scotus followed, was best known for today – the famous Downing Street speech of 1979.

An ingenious use of parallel readings of the Declaration of Arbroath and the American Declaration of Independence showed how Scotus’s thought came through the ages, right down to the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

John McEwen himself appeared as Professor Winkelman, who complained about not being invited to the study day on October 15 but still gave us the benefit of his “knowledge and understanding” of JDS and his works. A sad loss to the academic world!

A lovely performance of part of Mozart’s clarinet quintet served to reinforce a reading about love and relationships and there was even community singing, with the musicians, cast and audience joining in a rendering of the Beatles’ All You Need is Love, reinforcing the importance of love in the thought of Scotus.

A parade of models wearing dunce hats reinforced Professor Winkelman’s summary of the origins of use of the term ‘dunce’ as meaning a fool, until they cast off their white pointed hats with the D on them, and replaced them with examples of Yvette Jelfs’ reworking of the hat.

The evening ended with a debate between theDdevil and God (a loudly-dressed Bob Noble) about some of the key concepts of Scotus that still have relevance today.

The set-up of the hall created an intimate cabaret style setting which suited the flavour and look of this clever and witty performance – which suffered a few glitches inevitable in something being written up to the last minute, but these merely added to the sense of something real and grounded.

Incidentally, the day after the play, my son was in a pub in Duns and overheard people talking about Scotus – no sign of the Devil, though …