“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.
“there isn’t a weak performance in the whole cast”
Alexis Zegerman’s new play, The Fever Syndrome, set in New York, is about a driven, intellectual family dealing with life changing illness. Front and centre in the drama is patriarch Richard Myers, living with the last stages of Parkinson’s. His only grandchild, Lily, suffers from a mysterious genetic disease characterized by high fevers. In both cases, though in very different ways, both grandfather and grandchild are afflicted by diseases that are literally attacking their chances at life. It turns out that their family, rife with internecine rivalry, is also attacking people’s chances at life, despite the display of liberal politics and cutting edge business ideas. Zegerman’s play does capture much of the authenticity of American family life, at least in New York City, but many Americans may feel that it takes more than a dogged commitment to the Mets baseball team to make Richard Myers a truly sympathetic character. The Fever Syndrome is disappointing, ultimately, since it is unclear who we are supposed to be rooting for.
The Fever Syndrome is a long play. Unnecessarily long. It’s the sort of drama that Netflix would divide into several episodes, and we’d all be grateful for the break between the intense scenes that characterize unfinished business between father and children. Scenes that draw in partners — both established, and new to the family dynamics — and all the children, past and present, that present in flickering movements, both real and surreal. In the constant upheaval, it’s easy to lose track of the event that has gathered the family together, and which marks the starting point for this sprawling plot. Richard Myers has been awarded the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for his work in IVF (which produced the so called “test tube babies”) allowing infertile couples to have children of their own. In the living room of Richard’s New York brownstone is a space dedicated to all the families he has helped to create. It is ironic, therefore, that his own family is constantly on the brink of disintegration. The Fever Syndrome is, at its heart, about a groundbreaking scientist who brought all these children into the world but couldn’t raise his own. And despite the scientific gloss — the references to RIchard’s work, and later, the diseases that are systematically and relentlessly destroying his life and Lily, his granddaughter’s life —this is what the play is about. Another American family, rent from within by toxic parent child relationships, and playing out psycho-logical dramas that hint at Sophoclean proportions, on their living room floors. This is overly familiar territory, despite all the contemporary trimmings.
Director Roxana Silbert has assembled a cast brimming with talent, and a terrific design team for The Fever Syndrome. Robert Lindsay, as Richard, does, like the character he plays, award worthy work. Lindsay plays the fractious father and Parkinson’s sufferer so well that it is easy to forget that he manages comedy, and musicals, just as effortlessly. He is well matched by Alexandra Gilbreath, playing Richard’s third wife, Megan. Both actors are completely in command of the layered, complex characters that Zegerman has created. But then, there isn’t a weak performance in the whole cast. The adult children, Dot (Lisa Dillon), Thomas (Alex Waldmann) and Anthony (Sam Marks) play out their rivalries in ways that shift the audience’s sympathies from one to the other like watching an intense tennis match. Their partners Nate (Bo Poraj) and Philip (Jake Fairbrother) watch from the sidelines until they can take no more. And at the still centre of the family storm is teenager Lily (Nancy Allsop) and, from time to time, the mysterious young Dot (Charlotte Pourret Wythe) who can only be seen by Richard. The set, designed by Lizzie Clachan, is also award worthy, making the most of the Hampstead Theatre’s stage to create a fitting backdrop to this complicated family’s dynamics. There is much to admire in this production, despite its length, and the lack of a satisfying ending.