When Hans Christian Andersen wrote “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in 1837, he wasn’t thinking about land ownership in the Scottish Highlands. Nor did he have any concern for Scotland’s burgeoning music hall tradition. But even though these are two of the unlikely themes that emerge in Wee Stories’ raucous, big-hearted retelling of the parable, “The Emperor’s New Kilt” is a production that is as true to Andersen’s radical spirit as it is rich in ideas of its own.
In the title role, Iain Johnstone is not an emperor at all, but the laird — or landed proprietor — of a fictional Scottish island called Kiltie. He has taken control of this rural idyll with the self-interested gusto of the landowners who initiated the 18th century Highland clearances, forcing the population off the land in favor of sheep farming and aristocratic pursuits such as shooting, hunting and fishing.
A pompous figure of fun, this Laird of Kiltie is disliked by man and beast, not least for claiming ownership of everything from the mountains to the grass.
He does, of course, have a weakness which, in this Highland setting, is his voracious love of kilts. When two passing con men hear he is looking for a birthday kilt like nobody has ever seen, they set to work at a loom with a thread that stupid people might even think was invisible. First they fit him up, then they stitch him up. Good and proper.
The distinct cultural context means that when Louise Montgomery’s Rhona, an independently minded young islander, announces that the laird is in his birthday suit — and not in the way he intended — she is challenging not only the social pressure to conform but also the political authority of the land.
Even though the story is performed with all the bright and breezy knockabout charm you would expect of a family show from kid-theater specialists Wee Stories — here in collaboration with the National Theater of Scotland — it carries extra weight by engaging with the deeper implications of Andersen’s fable.
Johnstone and co-creator Andy Cannon (whose performance as Ramsay the sheep is a big-eyed treat) reflect on their place as a small children’s company on a big proscenium-arch stage by setting the show in the context of the popular tradition of pantomime. Both in the performance style, which is forthright and open, and in Becky Minto’s glorious patchwork backdrops, reminiscent of hand-stitched vaudeville sets, “The Emperor’s New Kilt” takes a knowing place in Scottish theater tradition.
The performance is also a study of the imagination. The story is framed by the tale of three children on vacation who invent the island of Kiltie in a game of make-believe.
It’s a game in which the audience joins in, happily accepting that the coat hangers, clothes rails and other wardrobe props can stand for whatever the actors want them to stand for. Likewise, it’s quick witted imagination that inspires the con men to trick the laird and it’s a rather over-active imagination that allows the laird to fall for their ruse.
What’s interesting, in a show that features songs, funny puppets, talking animals and high-speed doubling of parts, is that we are sucked into the story even though the actors never hide the pretence. When finally the game is over and it’s time for the children to end their vacation, there’s a real moment of poignancy, quickly upturned by a rousing ceilidh finale.