Much of this play’s energy comes from the constant interaction between Morison as Mary and her girl-band chorus of six, who play the Queen’s retinue
That one short scene epitomises much about both Linda McLean’s script and Royal Lyceum Artist Director David Greig’s choices in bringing it to “his” stage. McLean follows many notable writers in reimagining Mary, with an opening that all-but name-check’s Liz Lochhead’s iconic 1987 play Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. But while Lochhead looked at the complicated relationship between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, McLean instead focuses on the conflict between Mary and Knox: Catholic Queen versus Reformation Protestant; fun-loving youth versus dull-old middle-age; pragmatic compromiser versus religious fundamentalist; woman versus man.
Admittedly, basing her play around this binary conflict isn’t without problems, given that McLean essentially criticises Knox for having “no greys” in just such a world view. As it is, Jamie Sives provides a suitably austere, condemning Knox (although his voice never quite fills the space as you feel it should), but—one moment of anguish about his dead wife notwithstanding—he has little emotional room in which to manoeuvre. Rona Morison, as the Queen, is obviously provided with more opportunities to gain our sympathies, but again there’s something in the portrayal that means we never entirely warm to her.
Greig’s staging is clean and simple, the beautiful suggestions of arches from Karen Tennent matched by the bold, painterly lighting by Simon Wilkinson. Composer Michael John McCarthy also successfully emphasises the differences between Mary and Knox; he, associated with 16th century psalm-singing, she with a somewhat more diverse—and up-to-date—playlist. Sound is just one tool that Greig uses to highlight the continuing relevancies of Mary’s story; not least her stated intent to maintain Scotland’s links with Europe. That rings particularly true in the Scottish capital, where three quarters of voters wanted to remain in the EU.
Much of this play’s energy comes from the constant interaction between Morison as Mary and her girl-band chorus of six, who play the Queen’s retinue, members of her Privy Council, and other characters when required. And yet dramatically the most effective scene remains the one-on-one meeting between Mary and Knox, without any witnesses; a reminder of how dialogue and acting alone can still hit the spot without need for other theatrical tricks.