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The Tree of Knowledge - Jo Clifford's Free Exchange

Adam Smith is having it large. In an out of the way warehouse in Leith,
the noted economist and mid-wife of capitalism as we know it has
dropped his bunged-up mummy's boy facade and is all hoodied-up
following a trawl through what looks to have been the brightest,
brashest and most full-on gay bars in town. What's more, Smith is
loved-up on a chemically enhanced high, and is opening up to his
esteemed colleague, philosopher and man of letters David Hume, like
he's never done before. Where the two once got by on dry discourse, in
the modern world, at least, an altogether different form of intercourse
looks more likely.

Or so it goes in rehearsals for The Tree of Knowledge, Jo Clifford's
audacious new play which pits these two men of ideas in a present-day
limbo. Here they're led like a pair of Scrooges by a twenty-first
century everywoman through a hi-tech, free-market wonderland they might
just have helped think into being.

As actors Neil McKinven as Smith and Gerry Mulgrew playing Hume spit
out one-liners in an increasingly rapid-fire repartee, one can't help
but feel one is eavesdropping in on a kind of Enlightenment era
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the ultimate high-concept double-act
whose world is about to be turned upside down.

There's a moment in the midst of all this when both of these finest
minds of their generation realise that the Scottish Enlightenment they
spearheaded back in the eighteenth century has somehow borne fruit. The
sense of vindication as Hume and Smith realise that someone actually –
gasp - read their books, is a treat. It's also a very telling moment of
how Clifford's plays take the biggest of ideas, and not only injects
them with a heartfelt humanity, but draws deeply on her most personal
of experiences.

“On the face of it, these three characters have nothing to do with me,”
Clifford reflects, “but the more I look at it, the more I recognise
aspects of myself. There's this pre-occupation there with dying, which
I've had ever since my wife died six years ago. Having lived through
all that, as well as nearly dying myself, that's in there. There's
definitely a thing there about people seeing my plays as well. There's
a whole lot of my experience in there as a closet trans-sexual for all
those years, and discovering that actually I can live openly.

“So there's an immense sense of liberation in my life that goes into
that experience of Smith, who is liberated from Calvinism, which is
just a pleasure to see. A friend of mine told me she'd had a dream in
which I was naked on the Traverse stage, and in a way, that's what I'm
always doing, leaving myself completely exposed.”

Observations of gay dating site Grinder are also in the mix of The Tree
of Knowledge, as is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which Clifford
dropped acid to as a student in 1960s St Andrews. All of Clifford's
plays have dealt with this sense of exploration, where very intimate
issues inform more wide-reaching global concerns, and vice versa. This
has been evident from Clifford's first play for the Traverse, Losing
Venice, in 1985, right up to her meditation on death in Every One, at
Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre in 2010.

From the off, Clifford's writing style was a playfully
non-naturalistic form of epic magical-realism. While all had
historical, invariably European settings, they nevertheless felt deeply
contemporary. Looking back on them as a body of work, it's telling too
that many - Lucy's Play, Playing With Fire and Celestina spring to mind
- feature strong women at their metaphysical core. So it is with The
Tree of Knowledge.

“A dear friend of mine had been brought up in Glenrothes, and had
worked in a computer factory when the town was known as Silicon Glen at
the dawn of the computer revolution that completely changed all our
lives. I began to see connections, and I knew at this point that there
was going to be a scene with Hume and Smith working in the factory.”
This woman became Eve.

“There are so many parallels between the intellectual revolutions that
Hume and Smith were involved in, and the intellectual, social and
political revolutions that we're involved in now, which I think centre
around the computer. When I wrote my first play back in 1985, there
weren't computers. I used a typewriter, and it's almost impossible now
to think back to what it was like.”

Clifford brings out her smart-phone.

“Look at what we can do now,” she marvels. “We can Google anything we
want to. Just think about the change that represents, especially when
you think of the difficulties Hume had to get access to a library.”
Written while Clifford was Creative Fellow at the Institute for
Advanced Studies in the Humanities at the University of Edinburgh, The
Tree of Knowledge arrives onstage at the end of a year marking the
ter-centenary of Hume's birth. Commissioned to celebrate this
anniversary, it was unlikely Clifford was ever going to write a
straightforward biography.

“I started to read Hume's philosophy, which I couldn't make head nor
tale of. Then I started reading his auto-biography, and discovered what
a fascinating man he was. Then I became really fascinated by Smith, who
was a far subtler thinker than the Adam Smith Institute think. Both men
realised that what is fundamentally important for us as human beings is
a capacity for empathy, and that's also the beginning of drama. The
contrast between Glenrothes new town and Edinburgh new town is just
delicious, and what that tells us about how we view humanity compared
to how Hume and Smith viewed humanity is extraordinary, and that throws
everything into perspective.”

The Tree of Knowledge will be the first play Clifford has had produced
at the Traverse since 1993. Given Clifford's history with the
theatre,this is a remarkable gap, and demonstrates how little
Clifford's generation of writers were looked after when a new wave
breezed in. not that Clifford stopped writing. Pitlochry, the Lyceum,
Edinburgh International Festival and international outlets have all
allowed her to expand her imagination. The Tree of Knowledge, however,
suggests Clifford has come home with something very important to say.

“I think there's a lot of anger in the play,” she says. “The economic
situation we're in just now is desperate, and free-market economics are
no longer adequate. Somehow governments have got to intervene here. I
think there's a sadness, really, about how in the west we have so many
opportunities for happiness and self-fulfilment, which we generally
fail. There's a huge amount of depression in society, and the we are
conspiculously making an unhappy society, but I hope that, despite all
the grief and all the anger and distress, there is, I hope, a very
positive sense in the play that we can resolve things, and that a new
society is being born.

This is one of the most crucial periods in human history, in which an
old system is no longer adequate to the demands being made on it, and a
new form of social, economic, political and artistic culture, we're in
the birth pangs of that. That can be a very frightening and dangerous
thing, but in spite of that, I think it's also a very profound and
hopeful time.”

The Tree of Knowledge, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, December 8-24
www.traverse.co.uk

The Herald, December 6th 2011

ends

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