The Scotsman Sessions #101: Tam Dean Burn

Welcome to The Scotsman Sessions. With performing arts activity curtailed for the foreseeable future, we are commissioning a series of short video performances from artists all around the country and releasing them on scotsman.com, with introductions from our critics. Here, Tam Dean Burn tackles the subject of Scotland’s salmon farming industry in an excerpt from his show Aquaculture Flagshipwreck

Thursday, 10th September 2020, 9:57 am

The date was 29 March 2019, and the place was the SWG3 nightclub in Glasgow, a giant warehouse space hired by the National Theatre of Scotland as the venue for its Dear Europe cabaret, designed to mark the night when the UK was to have left the European Union.

Brexit was deferred, of course, for another ten months. Yet the show went on, in a spirit of wild and sometimes beautiful post-punk rebellion against the status quo; and none of the acts involved left a more vivid visual impression than actor and creator Tam Dean Burn with what he called his “warm-up act”, a brief moment of pure political cabaret, featuring himself and musician Rachel Newton, in which - with the help of brilliant graphics by Tom Morgan-Jones, not to mention a giant inflatable salmon - he used a brightly-coloured children's-show format to tackle the subject of Scotland’s salmon farming industry, notorious among environmental campaigners for the problems of disease and pollution which plague its operations, mainly along Scotland’s west coast.

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Tam Dean Burn is one of Scotland’s most radical and remarkable theatre performers, with an acting career that also ranges across film and television. He has played the gangster Tom McCabe in River City, and appeared in the recent television series Fortitude, as well as in major films ranging from Local Hero to Outlaw King. Born in Leith in 1958, he is part of the generation that also includes novelist Irvine Welsh, and Tam Dean Burn’s brother Russell, drummer with the Fire Engines; he and Tam have played together in bands The Bum Clocks and Dirty Reds.

Tam Dean Burn

In theatre, he has played many conventional roles, including Captain Edgar in Strindberg’s Dance Of Death at the Citizens’ in 2016, and Vladimir in Waiting For Godot at the Lyceum. His main theatrical influences, though, tend to include the wild counter-cultural free-form style pursued by performers like Ken Campbell, and the agitprop tradition of overtly political cabaret; Dean Burn is a confirmed radical socialist, and increasingly campaigns - from his home in Glasgow - for the right of children including his own young daughter to inherit a planet not despoiled and destroyed by the excesses of 21st century capitalism.

In this glimpse of Aquaculture Flagshipwreck, Dean Burn begins by outlining the problems caused by intensive salmon fish-farming in Scottish coastal waters, and then - embracing The Singing Kettle as another decisive performing influence - launches his appeal to the rising generation of children to “clear up this mess.” Dean Burn was first drawn to the subject of salmon farming last year, when he was working on Morna Young’s play for Perth Theatre, Lost At Sea, about the fate of the Scottish fishing industry, and of the many fishermen who lose their lives around our coasts.

“The salmon farming issue isn’t directly connected with that story,” says Dean Burn, “except in the fact that it causes some coastal pollution. But I found my imagination was gripped both by the terrible state of the fish being farmed in this way, and by their impact on Scotland’s wild salmon, a truly legendary fish in our history and literature.

“As Maya Angelou says, every good cause needs its sensationalists. Well, I am a Marxist sensationalist; and I will do all I can to draw people’s attention to the damage caused by this industry which is overwhelmingly owned outside Scotland, by our own government’s complicity with it, and by the economic system which drives this desperate addiction to forms of farming and production that are destroying the natural world. And maybe the children are the ones who will finally put a stop to it.”

For more on Tam Dean Burn, visit https://vimeo.com/tharmas, for more on illustrator Tom Morgan-Jones, visit http://www.inkymess.com, and for more on the environmental issues surrounding salmon farming in Scotland, visit https://scottishsalmonwatch.org and https://www.issf.org.uk

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