John Aubrey is perhaps best known as the antiquarian who investigated Stonehenge, but the Aubrey whom Colin Burnie and ElevenOne Theatre brought to life at the Old Fire Station last night was a salacious gossip revealing the lives of his contemporaries in a manner more akin to OK than serious biography.
In this one-man show Colin Burnie, playing a decrepit, elderly Aubrey, discusses his character's life fleshed out by the gossip and scandal of the individual personalities he has known: from Sir Thomas More, Francis Bacon and Sir Walter Raleigh to philosopher Thomas Hobbes and parliamentarian General Moncke. Aubrey clearly led an interesting life and lived through interesting times, from Elizabeth I's reign to the restoration of Charles II, meeting many of the significant personas of his age. However cruel and incisive Aubrey's observations are, they are offset by wit and humour and the audience were quickly drawn into Burnie's/Aubrey's world and were laughing merrily at his anecdotes such as his discussion of medical doctors and 'bottom boiling' as a cure for sciatica.
The ease with which the audience were drawn into Aubrey's world was in no small part due to his expert portrayal by Colin Burnie. He captured many of the traits of old age being at times bemused and befuddled and at others as clear as glass in his recollections and as sharp as a razor in his observations. Burnie gave Aubrey a wheezy, repetitive laugh at times as irritating as Jimmy Carr's constructed chortle but also more sophisticated and nuanced as it formed an essential part of the rhythm of the piece and Burnie's excellent comic timing. The set and props were also well used in order to establish Aubrey's character and circumstances and to illustrate the points being made from the bawdy – at one point Aubrey heaves out his chamber pot from under the bed and retires behind the four poster hangings to relieve himself – to the reflective where Aubrey muses on religion and the decline of magic and his collection of curiosities.
Aubrey lived through great religious and political turmoil – 'times were better when Elizabeth was on the throne' as he states repeatedly; the Civil War; the Parliamentarian Commonwealth and the reforming zeal of Protestantism; the Gunpowder Plot and religious intolerance and the restoration of the monarchy. Burnie's portrayal gives personal flesh to the many individuals he knew who were involved these great social changes as he regales the audience with stories of plague and pox, pimping and prostitution.
Aubrey states that the stories told during the play are the 'plain and naked truth' but they are at once both credible and incredible. He has great insight and knowledge of his contemporaries and the times in which he lives but all his revelations and personifications are coloured by his own experience and judgement – who he likes and dislikes and what subjects do and do not interest him – and as such Burnie's portrayal is very human, drawing out the warmth, knowledge and experience of Aubrey's character. And this is the ultimate truth of the piece - Aubrey's exposés in the play reveal that the central motivations of the people of his times were very much the same as our own - greed, lust, the pursuit of power, health, wealth and happiness.
Consequently ElevenOne Theatre's and Colin Burnie's interpretation of John Aubrey's Brief Lives is an immensely enjoyable one-man show full of complexity, rich detail and humour, and as such offers great theatrical entertainment and insight to a wide range of people, the people he knew, the politics of his time or just a good old gossip. Go along and enjoy the rich panoply of characters, Aubrey's humour and his wide-ranging insight, all wrapped up in a highly entertaining solo show.