Writer: Linda McLean
Director: David Greig
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
Two iconic Scot figures, Mary, Queen of Scots and John Knox, responsible for influencing the course of Scottish history, and its society, take centre stage in this world premiere production from Linda McLean. It’s a pared down exploration of the relationship between the last queen of Scotland and a troublesome priest, reminding us of the politics and the personalities which shaped the nation in the sixteenth century in ways which are still palpable nearly half a millennium later.
Fresh off the boat from France, Mary (Rona Morison) finds her homeland newly reformed in Protestantism, under the firebrand head of the Scottish church, Knox (Jamie Sives). Loosely strung around four documented meetings between these two figureheads of opposing ideologies, McLean’s story is a spirited attempt to put flesh on to the dry bones of political and religious history.
Division is the key theme throughout, from the black/white design to the male/female influences on Mary, and (rather wryly) the eventual division of Mary herself, the physical separation of her head from her body being the ultimate price for her straddling of the two sides of history. Pinning the story to Mary’s execution – which both starts and ends the story here – seems a little opportunistic, serving to further the convenient mythology of Mary’s story being defined by the manner of her death, rather than the life that preceded it.
But otherwise, McLean offers some intriguing views in her imagining of scenes that took place off the (historical) record. The meetings between Knox and Mary are briskly and sparingly played out, except the extended dialogue between them in which it seems an accord may almost be reachable. This moment seems to be the crux of the whole story, the point on which so much that followed turns, and is a truly well-crafted piece of writing, shedding dramatic tricks and stage effects to put the focus on two people simply talking.
Throughout, Morison brings the queen alive as an almost thoroughly modern Mary, a fizzing and spluttering bundle of energy, opinion and emotion, and brilliantly showcases a queen in possession of intellect. This is Mary as politician, with far more going on below her ruffles and skirts than the mere pursuit of doomed romance, as she is often portrayed. Sives, on the other hand, seems cast to play Knox younger than in reality, when the reformer was nearing his fifties to Mary’s childlike eighteen years. This creates issues of dramatic gravitas – in appearance, his beard and hair are more evocative of hipster frivolity than mid-life decorum, and there is little in his vocal tone and manner to characterise the fiery and immovable resolve of a man motivated to bring a country to revolution through ideology.
Problematic for McLean, too, is the perennial challenge of explaining the rabid nature of the divisions between two branches of religious belief – when Knox rails about infidels and devils, there are echoes of the language of modern religious conflicts, but little insight into what drives that righteous fervour and hatred. Perhaps understanding this is Mary’s struggle too when she questions Knox about whether he believes her a ‘bad’ person, but ideological adherence is no substitute for personality, and somehow leaves the character of Knox psychologically unjustified.
Mary’s chorus-like entourage of multiple Marys brings life to the proceedings, flexing between voicing incidental figures from the story and producing visual tableaux, as well as harmonising in some spine-tingling vocal arrangements, while Karen Tennent’s sleek staging is sullied only by the peripheral chairs and racks where performers don ruffs and capes. There is little to be gained from the audience seeing these transformations, and it clutters an otherwise free-flowing presentation.
With an artful combination of modern songs and music throughout, the tone of David Greig’s premiere presentation at the theatre he took over last summer, has plenty to offer, with only the bum note of the presentation of Knox weakening an otherwise stirring and powerful evocation of this most intriguing period of Scottish history.
Runs until 10 June 2017 | Image: Drew Farrell