The setting for Lucy Beresford-Knox’s Burn, could hardly be better. The Pit at the Vault Festival has exposed brick walls and an arched ceiling; all the makings of a dark, dank prison that sets the scene for an intense encounter between Queen Mary I (Frankie Hyde-Peace) and Thomas Cranmer (Kelvin Giles).
Delicately nuanced, finely balanced and completely captivating
Cranmer’s hey-day is over. The servant of Henry VIII and Edward VI, who was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, has failed to manoeuvre his way from being the leading light of the newly-formed Church of England and author of the Book of Common Prayer, to a man who could not credibly change his position to serve the Catholic Queen. The country had reverted to it’s old traditions and as a reformer he has now spent two years confined for treason and heresy, of which his Thirty-Nine Articles stand testimony. The bright ceremonial robes of ecclesiastical office along with all the pomp and ceremonies have been stripped away. Giles appears in the simpler period robes of a commoner with the suggestion Doctor of Divinity. His Cranmer is humble and dejected; a shadow of his former self, yet still possessed of his intellect and the hope that he can escape the fate that awaits him. He’s apologetic and willing to recant; to concede to the errors he has made and to seek forgiveness for having led the nation astray.
Mary, however, is having none of it. Under a different monarch he might have talked his way out of the situation, but his is lost cause. The two engage in conversation while moving their pieces on a chess board. The Game of Kings could not be more appropriate in its silent symbolism.The monarch and the bishop vie for supremacy, but the latter is now just another pawn in the power struggle that grips the country. Hyde-Peace has regal presence, dressed in glistening black that has all the overtones of having come prepared for a funeral. Cranmer can never win this game and ultimately she has no need to win an argument; his plight is non negotiable. She is the Queen and by her order he will be executed.
Yet we know that in just two years the same fate will await her. The tide is already turning for her. A chalk-board proclaims "Mary I of England was a strong, handsome queen. Intelligent, independent, and a powerful woman. She will forever be remembered as such”. Her fine attributes and positive qualities are one by one wiped off and crossed out to be replaced with their opposites that become her legacy which forever lables her as 'Bloody Mary'. Hyde-Peace shows Mary increasingly tormented by her weaknesses and the public’s growing negative perception of her. Cranmer may not have the upper hand but he knows how to inflict pain and turn the screw. She remains in control, however, dominating the encounter, though the other element in the play, that of her being a woman, is also ever-present. As the words are changed it’s hard not to think that it’s a device that would only work if the stereotypical failings of her sex were able to be deployed. As the first woman on the throne of England she was not excused the misogyny of the centuries and the need to placate men. She might win this battle with Cranmer, but that war would still not be won even centuries later.
Beresford-Knox’s script captures the gravitas of the situation, is immersed in history, without being didactic, and captures the humanity of two people raised to positions they must defend, but who are otherwise ordinary people with the same feelings and emotions as the peasants on the street and Director Sophie Wilson gives these full reign. There is no hint of the simplicity that would come from creating a good guy and bad guy, but rather of teamwork that has created a production that is delicately nuanced, finely balanced and completely captivating.
This Beresford-Knox’s debut play and it marks and outstanding entry into the world of script-writing. She has found a niche in which her understanding of characters, historical research and style of writing are moulded into powerful and captivating theatre.