The Tree of Knowledge

David Hume and Adam Smith point out obvious pitfalls of 21st century life

The central conceit of Jo Clifford’s new play is an interesting one. Two influential figures from 18th century Scotland find themselves in early 21st century Edinburgh, surveying the world they helped create.

The witty lines flow thick and fast, as philosopher David Hume and founder of free market economics Adam Smith awake from their deathly slumbers and question their re-birth. Actors Gerry Mulgrew (Hume) and Neil McKinven (Smith) instantly draw us in with their conviviality and comic timing, aided by Ben Harrison’s astute direction.

So far, so innovative. But as the play unfolds, Clifford’s sparkling intellectual wordplay edges closer and closer to cliché and generalisation. Joined by 21st century Scottish everywoman, Eve – also back from the dead – Hume and Smith discover the humanity they played a part in shaping.

Except they don’t, they discover a small and not terribly likeable part of it. Eve recalls the mundanity of working on a silicon chip production line – an activity Hume claims is not ‘fit for human beings’ – and describes the abusive husband who raped and beat her. Smith, freshly out of the closet, finds cold and disconnected anal sex online, but asks ‘where is tenderness, what kind of world is this?’

And why wouldn’t he? Clifford paints the world we live in with broad strokes, giving scant regard to the wonders of modern life, our enormous capacity for love and the regular displays of tenderness Smith mourns. Instead she points out the pitfalls of 21st century life few, if any of us, hadn’t already noticed.

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until Sat 24 Dec

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