Rona Munro’s world premiere of Mary serves as her latest addition to a cycle of six other James plays of Scottish historical drama. Whether well-acquainted with the Stuart monarchs or not, Roxana Silbert’s production of Munro’s latest work is one of those shows that benefits from some context. Grand in its production design and dramatically sumptuous in its oratory and performances, I was surprised that Mary was presented as a single act, straight through, and kept expecting an interval that never arrived. As a theatregoer, it is worth knowing that (despite being presented in one act) the story begins in April 1567 and concludes two months later, in June. Ashley Martin-Davis’ clever set and Matt Haskin’s shadow-painting lighting locate us at first in a claustrophobic space in Holyrood Palace where a Scottish government officer urgently demands servants open the gates for the Queen’s safety. Some minutes later, we are transported into a rich and stately room in the same palace where the dynamics have clearly shifted as much as the physical characteristics – but it would take an expertly tuned ear or an erudite grasp of Stuart historical specifics to gather just from the dialogue precisely how much time had passed. Nonetheless, the change of mood, potently underscored by Nick Powell’s sound design and composition, brings suspense and the menacing feeling of encountering the realpolitik of a society in tumult.
Playwright Munro laments that the life of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, has often been at the centre of heightened or romantic narratives, commenting that the woman has, ‘always been a symbol, an icon on which others pin their stories. She deserves to be seen clearly and for herself.’ Yet the protagonist of Mary is not the woman herself at all. The experience we witness is a fictionalised encounter between courtier James Melville (Douglas Henshall) and two different types of servants-cum-revolutionaries: Thompson (Brian Vernal), a servant of the court and government, and Agnes (Rona Morison), a household servant. Like a court-room drama, Mary is cerebral and talky – its quick-fire dialogue sparks thanks to punchy performances from each of the cast members whom Silbert has successfully orchestrated with a sort of dramatic syncopation.
Despite its quality and literary density, it is somewhat ironic that Munro has absolutely treated the titular character as a symbol upon whom others project their world views and agendas. She gives most of this play’s drama and character development to James Melville, a man who conveniently left memoirs to provide the first-hand texture of his own life and experiences on which the playwright draws heavily. We witness Melville changed by the experience of interrogation from formerly subservient Thompson and Agnes – but we also see an even more dramatic reversal in the character of Agnes who glimpses that there is not just a human being beneath the crown but specifically a woman who, despite ‘royal blood’ is physically vulnerable when power shifts. Munro confronts head-on the specific brutality a female monarch experienced in all manner of battles (by the mob or Bothwell or the other Great Lords of Scotland) to determine national sovereignty, especially as the contested sovereign herself – even if the account is inferred from a male memoirist rather than Mary’s own testimony.
Mary concludes with a theatrical flourish that feels somewhat discordant with the style of the rest of the play, but also works to an extent. I think, with time, some of the show’s more stylised elements will find a kind of counter-harmony with the rest of the production even if certain aspects currently come across as a bit clunky or jarring at this stage. With all its lavishness, I was surprised by some artistic choices. Some visual elements did not flow as well as the tightly scripted dialogue, but these dramatic interruptions had a sort of avant-garde dance surrealism that popped up – offering some sensational pleasure if not exactly aiding cohesion. I would have liked to have seen Silbert choose to go for it a bit more with some of the more bizarre and imagistic aspects, having introduced them rather than ration them out in a mostly naturalistic and self-consciously stagey drama.
Anchored with brilliant performances from Henshall, Vernal and Morison, Mary is a satisfying, if imperfect, cross-examination drama that moves at a clip and offers some compellingly perturbing questions to consider. Worth checking out but, a bit like an exhibition, I’d recommend arriving in good time to buy and read the programme for a fuller orientation to the work, its world and the competing historical perspectives the author seeks to explore.
Review by Mary Beer
It’s 1567. Meet James Melville, an intelligent, charismatic and skilled diplomat who is also one of the most loyal servants of Mary Stuart, the troubled Queen of Scots. It’s a time of political turmoil and the shocking crimes he has witnessed have shaken him. Now he needs to decide who’s guilty, who’s innocent, and who is too dangerous to accuse.
Change is coming, but at what price?
WRITER RONA MUNRO
DIRECTOR ROXANA SILBERT
DESIGNER ASHLEY MARTIN-DAVIS
LIGHTING MATT HASKINS
COMPOSER AND SOUND NICK POWELL
MOVEMENT AYSE TASHKIRAN
CASTING HELENA PALMER CDG
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR MARLIE HACO
JAMES MELVILLE – DOUGLAS HENSHALL
AGNES – RONA MORISON
THOMPSON – BRIAN VERNEL
A HAMPSTEAD THEATRE WORLD PREMIERE
BY RONA MUNRO
DIRECTED BY ROXANA SILBERT
21 OCT – 26 NOV 2022