MARY at the Hampstead Theatre
“Munro gives the actors plenty to chew on, and with actors like Henshall, Morison and Vernel, it’s a pleasure to watch and listen”
Mary is another play in the series of dramas about Scottish history by Rona Munro. They focus on the Stuart dynasty of the kings of Scotland, and begin with James I. These earlier plays, known collectively as The James Plays, were seen both on tour in Scotland, and at the English National Theatre in 2014, to well deserved acclaim. They provide the backstory for Mary, the current play in the series, but all the plays are meant to seen as stand alone dramas as well. This production of Mary, directed by Roxana Silbert, has a strong cast in Douglas Henshall as the Catholic Sir James Melville, Rona Morison as Agnes, a fiercely Knoxian brand of Protestant, and Brian Vernel as a politically naive guard named Thompson. Mary Stuart herself makes a couple of brief, but memorable appearances (a poised debut by newcomer Meg Watson). The austere lines of the set and costume designs (Ashley Martin-Davis), and the vivid lighting (Matt Haskins) are an appropriate contrast to the catastrophic events that lie at the heart of the reimagined events of Rona Munro’s play.
Mary is of course, about Mary, Queen of Scots, that well known, tragic figure of any number of romantic novels and movies about the Scottish queen and her rival, Elizabeth I of England. Munro’s version of Mary’s story doesn’t focus on the rivalry between queens, as Schiller’s does. In Munro’s hands, Mary Stuart’s story is altogether a much grittier, and more violent drama. It’s about the tragedy of a woman caught up in a vicious power struggle between warring factions at the Scottish court. The battle is literally fought on Mary’s body. Interestingly, Munro chooses to tell this story not through Mary’s voice, but through the voices of some minor characters at her court.
Munro’s drama opens the way it means to go on — on a scene of violence. A man lies on stage, bloody from a stab wound. Melville, the Queen’s devoted supporter, is trying to get him and his blood, out of the way before Mary sees him. Because “she’s been frightened enough already.” But Thompson wants the Queen to see what “he” has done to him. Melville calls in a servant, Agnes, to clean him up. It turns out that “he” is James Bothwell, suspected assassin of the Queen’s husband, Henry Darnley. Bothwell is in the middle of a rampage. Over the course of a few months, he will leave no one in Scotland untouched by his rapaciousness for blood and power. One of Bothwell’s most potent weapons is sexual assault. And as Mary proceeds, Melville is forced to confront his complicity in standing by while Bothwell rapes his Queen. He is also forced to make an impossible choice between his loyalty to Mary, and his loyalty to his country. In these tumultuous times, there is no distinction between the “body politic” and the Queen’s actual body. In seizing the Queen, Bothwell has seized power. It doesn’t seem to matter whether people believe Mary was raped or was a willing partner with Bothwell. Everything comes crashing down.
As a play, Mary works its magic with a mix of punchy and oddly modern dialogue, and genuinely heartfelt moments between the well-defined characters. Munro gives the actors plenty to chew on, and with actors like Henshall, Morison and Vernel, it’s a pleasure to watch and listen. The distinctive rhythms of the Scottish dialect heighten the emotions as these three struggle for power. But for all the drama of Melville’s anguished conscience, Mary ends on a cliffhanger. It feels like part of a series, and not a true standalone drama. Mary is really the Sir James Melville story. Maybe Munro will find time to write another play about Mary, Queen of Scots.
Mary may feel like a bit of an anomaly in The James Plays saga, but it fills in some essential details. If you’re a fan of the series, then you’ll want to see this play. So don’t miss Mary at the Hampstead, and start looking ahead to the next play in Rona Munro’s exceptional series about Scottish history, told from a Scottish perspective.
Reviewed on 31st October 2022
by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Manuel Harlan
Previously reviewed at this venue: