MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS GOT HER HEAD CHOPPED OFF
by Liz Lochhead.
King’s Head Theatre 115 Upper Street N1 1QN To 22 June 2013.
Runs 2hr 20min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 7478 0160.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 16 June.
Quick-witted play of power and passions receives a rare revival.
One of the funniest, most trenchant Molière productions I’ve seen was Tartuffe at the Tron in Glasgow, with an unlikely, yet successful 1950s lower-middle class setting. The Scots translation, witty and brisk, was by Liz Lochhead.
These qualities are apparent in her tale of two queens. Sisters and opposites, luxuriant Mary Queen of Scots thrown unwitting and unwanted into the care of Elizabeth I of England, who commanded her realm skilfully but never felt entirely safe on her throne. Especially while her Protestantism was opposed by European Catholic powers, whose preference for a Catholic queen in England could be met by Mary. And the Queen of Scots (not Scotland’s queen) attracted men as speedily as Elizabeth kept avoiding them. Men desired Mary bodily; they wanted Elizabeth’s body politic.
Tall, imposing figures, Sarah Thom’s Virgin Queen of England and Nora Wardell’s powerless Queen of Scots have enough visual similarity to make their distinctive aspects clear. With loose hair and flowing movement, Mary’s passionate urge for freedom contrasts the tense features of Elizabeth’s anxious command.
Lochhead doubles each queen as the other’s servant with the whisked reversal of a skirt flap. It’s a neat device hinting at possible quick reversals of fortune, and suits the small-scale, irregular space between three banks of seating, where no queen can feel she’s on secure territory. Half-hidden at one side is an executioner’s axe, a memento mori, for Ann Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth as for Mary.
Acting’s variable in Robin Norton-Hale’s production; three performers sound convincingly Scottish. Especially native and to the language born, Shelley Lang gives vivid humour to her commentator crow, national bird of Scotland (as, she points out, its flower is the thistle).
Lang’s a lively, ever-mobile corbie, making Lochhead’s Scots sounds vibrant, though English ears may need to tune-in for full value. Her performance binds the many transitions. By contrast, Mary’s conflicts with Scottish Protestant opponent John Knox never reach full power.
A shame, for the final quiet scene beautifully shows how 16th-century religious struggles shape the modern schoolyard where the title might still be chanted. A forceful end, it’s finely played here.
Mary: Nora Wardell.
Elizabeth: Sarah Thom.
La Corbie: Shelley Lang.
Darnley: Sean Hart.
Hepburn O’Bothwell: Jamie Laird.
John Knox: Prentis Hancock.
Riccio: Michael Longhi.
Director: Robin Norton-Hale.
Designer/Costume: Katie Bellman.
Lighting: Brendan Albrey.
Music: Harry Blake, Odinn Hilmarsson.
Movement: Valentina Ceschi.
Assistant director: Tom Crowley.
Associate lighting: Chris Withers.