On the face of it, the metaphor that Tim Price has seized on to explore the issue of Scottish independence is quite clever. In his latest play, the Union is a band, its members representing the four states that form the United Kingdom: an Englishman, a Northern Irishman, a Scotsman and a Welshman. All seems to be going well, until financial crisis hits and Scottish guitarist Barry wants to go it alone. So far, so good.
As I’m With the Band goes on, however, this central device feels increasingly inadequate and simplistic. The internal politics of a band might be sufficient for conveying the basic situation currently faced by the UK, in much the same way as teachers condense the complicated into simplified analogies, but it can never effectively grapple with the complexity of the arguments around Scottish independence. The issues that most naturally rise to the surface are instead those that are most emotionally loaded, running the risk of undermining the very debate it attempts to inhabit.
The show’s parallels, meanwhile, are often either forced or reductive. Complex political battles become band members throwing sulky punches; the EU is imagined as a record company, while tensions between Northern Ireland and the neighbouring Republic are reduced to a violent spat between estranged partners. It all comes across as a little glib, at times straying dangerously close to national stereotypes. Even the jokes – some of which are actually pretty good – get tripped up by their own self-satisfaction. It’s a piece that is all too pleased with itself, content with an ingenious but underexplored concept.
The other risk that the piece runs is that of perpetuating a certain, dangerously reductive view of politics. Just as band members worry about how their break-up would affect their image, politics seems to boil down to little more than good and bad publicity. It’s striking to compare this glossed-over version of the debate with The Bloody Great Border Ballad at Northern Stage at St Stephen’s, which is a messier but far more nuanced consideration of the same central question – a “better confusion” as artistic director Lorne Campbell amiably puts it. If we can’t allow that confusion, then perhaps we are ignoring the true complexity of the issue.
Deliberately or not, the first track of I’m With the Band, ‘We’re All in This Together’, immediately recalls the toxic political rhetoric of David Cameron, who of course would prefer that the Union remains intact. It might sound like solidarity, but in practice this policy amounts to little more than keeping things as they are. If being in it all together means pandering to politics as PR and blithely accepting the status quo, then perhaps – contrary to the message ultimately promoted by Price’s play – we are better divided.