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A vibrant, youthful and feisty Mary Stuart duels verbally with a dark, dour and determined John Knox. But when you suddenly realise that the harp playing on stage is actually rendering Party Fears Two, an ’80s Associates song, you realise that this play is here to remind us that history can still deliver a definitively contemporary message.
Although born in Scotland, Mary Stuart lived in France for most of her youth, and the play works around the series of meetings that took place between Catholic Stuart and Protestant Knox when she returned to Scotland as an 18-year old. The action starts with a temporal jump to the future, with Mary waiting for execution in the Tower of London, then switches to her arrival as a colourful, striking young woman alighting in Leith, and making her cautious and nervous way to Holyrood, with her earlier-than-expected arrival meaning there is little of the pageantry she expects to greet her. She is returning from Europe to a country that has just banned her church and its practices.
The staging is sparse and stylised, with striking use of lighting and simple, suggestive outlines of architecture enclosing the action. Six young female actresses seamlessly swap roles as a chorus that evolves from being Scottish Nobility to a Privy Council, to echoing Mary’s own internal thoughts. Rona Morison’s Mary is a striking, youthful and flamboyantly dressed figure, and the six actresses (Jamie Sives’ Knox is the lone male actor) are a very effective device to illustrate the flux of often explosive religious and political tensions of the day.
The music is a delight in this piece, with the use of seductive, sensual French contemporary sounds to highlight Mary’s youth and passion, with Knox, whose musical accompaniment is no more than stony silence, sternly disapproving even at the thought of someone enjoying dance. The sight and sound of seven young women snaking around to a pulsing piece from the aptly named Christine and the Queens deftly illustrates the difference in culture and attitude between Mary’s flamboyant 18-year old redhead, and the grim, middle-aged Knox.
Costume too is striking, with Mary’s stylish and fashionable outfits, which would not look out of place on a 2017 Paris Fashion Week catwalk, outshining Knox’s plain, minimalist drabness. John’s very shoes are utilitarian and dull, whereas Mary’s psychedelic high-heeled boots startle at first sight. Mary has several costume changes, and her long red hair is sometimes up, sometimes down, but Knox remains stuck in the same plain and unremarkable garb throughout. The chorus of six actors wear a more stylish, but still monochromatic black and white, letting Mary stand out with her colour and flair.
Playwright Linda McLean cites the “howl of unsilencing” against a patriarchal establishment that comes from Mary, and the chorus of female actors very neatly amplify this – an unusual structural device that under Director David Greig’s controlled and understated direction, is incredibly effective.
Although Knox is the sole male on stage, the background of male domination of religious and political life in sixteenth century Scotland comes across clearly, and the clever swapping of the six female actors’ gender and affiliations serves to underscore this. Mary, although a strong figure whose tragic story is still remembered in many dramatic performances today, has had her voice silenced by the surroundings she is thrown into when she arrives in Scotland, with Knox railing against her dangerous Papist ways in sermons ‘three times a week, and again on Sundays’.
Knox’s language is deliberately made more archaic and formal than Mary’s, but he is not merely depicted as caricature. Although perhaps lacking nuance, this is no bible-bashing firebrand, but more of a thoughtful, reflective figure, whose faith has been sorely tested by the death of his wife, elucidated in a stark and moving monologue. But there is also a hint of sensual corruption in the way that Mary is portrayed, and so each of these two strong characters is given real, human fallibility through their language and even their way of moving around the stage. Knox stalks, Mary cavorts. And there is a clear political undertone, where Mary represents a warm, outward-looking attitude that embraces Europe, and Knox is recognisably the angry, cold, establishment figure fixated on a Brexit that you know will be negotiated on his terms alone.
This is a clever unfolding of the clash between cultures and religion that are at polar opposites – Mary knows that she needs to be very careful of how she shows her faith, and can only worship privately, whereas Knox is the self-righteous, outspoken and inflexible ‘establishment’. We see a clever illustration of the different approaches when both Knox and Stuart are writing to England’s Queen, and whereas he fusses over sealing wax, she deftly pops the gift of a ring with her letter into a self-seal envelope. There are contemporary flashes too, with the sudden drop of the word ‘Europe’ throwing you from the 16th century into the ideological battles of here and now in 2017.
But does this all work as a piece of theatre? Yes, in the main, it really does. The second act is undoubtedly more assured, with the most memorable aural and visual elements. At the very start, the role of the chorus of six female actors takes a little time to get accustomed to. It is undoubtedly a wordy play, and the swapping of dialogue into six or seven different voices requires some focus and attention early on from the audience. But keen attention has its reward as the characters reveal more of their nature as the story progresses, there is real beauty in the way that Knox walks stiffly, silently apoplectic in disapproval, as around him the elegantly absorbed dancers move to a throb of contemporary French music.
This is a memorable, stylish, and engrossing performance. The very human sides of both John Knox and Mary Stuart are brilliantly brought to life, and the foundations of their differences are brought right up to modern times. Go see. You’ll enjoy this.
Click to book tickets for Glory on Earth today
Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh
20 May 2017 to 10 June 2017 7:30pm, Matinees Wed & Sat: 2pm Around 2h 10m including interval