Writer: Rona Munro
Director: Roxana Silbert
The “Great Man” way of reading history will say that it’s the actions and machinations of a few powerful and heroic figures that shape the course of events and lay the paths nations take. Mary makes a compelling case that it’s the backroom actions of those lower down the pecking order who really make things happen.
Part of a cycle covering medieval Scottish royal history, Mary is the latest in Rona Munro’s The James plays. Focusing specifically on the events leading up to and after Mary Queen of Scots’ abduction and violent seduction by the Earl of Bothwell, the play offers a complex dissection of power dynamics in the court and in the country at the time and couples it with tense and dramatic storytelling.
With a vibe almost immediately reminiscent of a gritty police or courtroom drama – silvery lighting, sparse furnishings – the play is split into two sections. In the first, Lord James Melville (Douglas Henshall) cajoles and persuades a young officer Thompson (Brian Vernel) to defy the other Lords of Scotland and let the Queen travel out of the castle in which she is being held. Fiercely loyal to Queen Mary, he persuades bluntly and forcefully – the assurance of an ideologue giving him strength. The second sees Melville back in Holyrood in Edinburgh, at an appointment some months later where the roles are reversed (following Mary’s fall from favour) and the newly elevated Thompson has been asked to secure Melville’s signature on a document discrediting Mary and smoothing the way for her son, the future James VI of Scotland to be crowned.
A servant of the house, Agnes (Rona Morison) is present for both meetings. An agitator for the new protestant religion she also has gained power in the intervening months and her interjections at both meetings catalyse much of the discussions of the men – helping to cut through wordplay and verbal jousting to get to the core of matters.
The two discussions between the three characters are threads in the grand tapestry of Mary’s life and fate. We see, however, that it’s these small parts going right that make the whole picture possible. Diving into the detail gives Munro a chance to examine not only Mary’s story but the context she sits in. Factionalism at court, tension between religious groups, greed and power games among the wealthy all come through. It all makes for exciting history. It’s presented in a way that draws easy comparisons with today’s political and social conversations – contortions of facts to suit nationalist agendas and excuse atrocious behaviour, men arguing among themselves to downplay or excuse a woman’s serious sexual abuse.
The breaking down of Melville’s beliefs and loyalty is mostly compelling. Thompson’s more subtle interview technique may be effective, but it takes him quite some time to win the older man over and the energy starts to sag in the middle. It’s revived by a solid ending, but we’ve had so much thrown at us in the run-up that its impact is dissipated. Vernel does a fine job in the Thompson role, a young man newly tasting influence battling with vigour and craft against someone who has lived a life of power. Henshall as Melville seems to have the weight of Scotland’s future on his shoulders – a loyalist who comes to the painful realisation that Queen and Country are in fact divisible. Morison’s journey as Agnes is also fascinating. From religious and political radical to one who sees through the schemes of the powerful and becomes disillusioned.
Silbert’s direction, and the visuals of Ashley Martin-Davis’ plain but elegant set, forces us to concentrate on the argumentative devices deployed by Melville and Thompson, and the content. At times there’s so little movement it may well be a radio play.
Though it forms part of a series, we can look at it as a strong work in its own terms. It showcases an area of history that is little understood and much overlaid with competing narratives. By illustrating how those narratives and perceptions are created and the strands involved, it not only educates but challenges us to simultaneously critically assess what we think we’re learning.
Runs until 26 November 2022