Douglas Henshall has wasted no time in returning to the stage after his years in Shetland. Among other observations on his departure from the series he said, “Flawed humans are always the most interesting to play because I feel they are the most truthful”. Truth and people’s perception of it, is at the heart of his current role as James Melville in Rona Munrow’s Mary at Hampstead Theatre. He is also the central character; the play could just as easily be called Melville, for it is as much about him as it is the eponymous Queen of Scotland. She is merely the subject of his soul-searching and the conflicts he encounters in interpreting the past and in reconciling himself to the Queen’s bleak future. He has also to consider the future security of the nation to which he is equally devoted.

This play about a woman turns out to be all about the men who surround her

Munro is in doubt about events in the life of Mary and where the truth lies. She has researched extensively for this play just as she did for the other Scottish histories in her James cycle. She rejects the notion, quite commonly held, that Mary was so full of passion for Bothwell, following the murder of her former husband, almost certainly by Bothwell, that she willingly gave herself to him and in so doing showed herself to be a woman of poor judgment and unfit to rule. Munro’s scouring of ‘original sources and eye-witness accounts’ leads to what for her is the inescapable conclusion that Mary ‘was raped by James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell to force her into a marriage that briefly gave him power, but ultimately destroyed them both’.

The details of that night in the bedchamber and the subsequent abuse of Mary form the basis of much of the debate. Yet whatever happened the urgent business of state is to secure the signature of Melville on the document that will rid the country of her and set up a regency for the next king. The conversion of Melville from a devoted guardian of the Queen to a man who will join with the rest of the Scottish nobles is in the hands of Thompson (Brian Vernel). His meteoric rise from a servant gatekeeper to a diplomat leaves us in no doubt that his loyalties lie with himself. Securing his own future means serving the rising groundswell of opinion against Mary and furthering the wishes of the lords. Vernel brings all the skills of an investigative detective or barrister interrogating the accused to the role, while Henshall captures the pain of a man whose world view is being turned on its head. The task is hard work and the process of persuasion makes for some laboured, and drawn-out dialogue. It lacks the highs and lows of a court-room drama and settles down as more of an academic debate. Nevertheless, it provides and insights into the world of politics where, as we know only too well, self-interest reigns supreme across the ages.

There are some lighter moments in all of this courtesy of Agnes, a servant of the royal household, whose contribution is perhaps way above the status she would have been accorded at the time, but who is constantly being put in her place by the men she interrupts; a cameo for how women have been consistently treated. Rona Morison, brings some much-needed wit and humour to the proceedings, while passionately stating her protestant credentials and her vision for a catholic-free future; which begs the question as to how she has survived so long in the Queen’s service.

Talking of whom, by now, you might be wondering where Mary is in all of this. Meg Watson, in her professional stage debut, floats across the stage at one point and is later given a handful of lines, but if you blink you might miss her. This play about a woman turns out to be all about the men who surround her, which gives it an odd slant, but also reflects the extent to which women can be marginalised even when they are central to all that is happening.

Ashley Martin-Davis has created a vast, dark grey panelled room, which is matched by equally dark costumes and whose dourness is brightened only by the predominantly lighting effects of Matt Haskins. Nothing can be accused of detracting from the script whose wordiness requires our undivided attention, but the combined effects of all these elements makes Roxan Silbert’s production overwhelmingly cheerless; except perhaps for a last-minute, bizarre and jaring momentary scene when women invade the streets and demand to know what is going on. They are not alone in that.

Beneath the surface of Mary there lies a host of issues and some contemporary resonances. They are well camouflaged, but worth picking out and reflecting upon.

Reviews by Richard Beck

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The Blurb

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?

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