This delightful production directed by David Greig is a happy mix of the historical and the contemporary, that combines minimalist sets and costumes with magical lighting and sound design. Many of the cast sing and play instruments on stage – harp and viola – and this combines beautifully with recorded song fragments of all kinds (Piaf, Nick Cave, Francoise Hardy amongst them).
The common perception of Scotland’s tragic Stuart Queen is of a rather feckless, pleasure-loving girl who put romance before the serious business of government and paid a heavy price. By focusing exclusively on Mary’s dealings with the formidable and intransigent Church leader, John Knox, playwright Linda Mclean makes us realise just how horribly isolated and unsupported this recently-bereaved teenage widow was, when she arrived from France to assume her throne. There is little or no mention in this play of the other men usually associated with Mary – Darnley, Bothwell and Rizzio.
The play’s action covers Mary’s first two years back in Scotland (she had been taken to France by her mother at the age of five). Almost immediately she comes up against Knox, himself only returned from the continent two years previously. The outcome of the power struggle between them was crucial for them both. The older and vastly experienced Knox soon gained the upper hand, his bullying intransigence no doubt originating from his experience at the hands of England’s Catholic queen Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary) – Knox had been in England and witnessed her ruthless persecution of protestant clerics and must have vowed never to let it happen in Scotland.
Rona Morison ably shows us a Mary who feels desperately alone with only her serving maids to turn to for support. These, the Four Marys of history (here expanded to six), play the part of chorus and council of nobles too. They combine well to give an impression of the way Mary’s colourful court, with its largely French influence, must have seemed at the time. In stark contrast, John Knox exudes an adamant Presbyterian blackness that brooks no compromise. Actor Jamie Sive does not show us much of the firebrand side of Knox, preferring to focus on his uncompromising attitude: the verbal fireworks come from Mary.
The politically minded will see in Mary’s dilemma and her search to establish a workable relationship with the English neighbour and the rest of Europe, a foretaste of Scotland’s current situation.
This clever and original play has a relevance to the Scotland of today and also shows us historical events in a new light. A most enjoyable evening.
Video courtesy of: Lyceum Theatre