Tony Cownie’s production of Liz Lochhead’s 1987 drama marks a two-year partnership between the Lyceum in Edinburgh and the Dundee Rep, and sees a convergence of both theatres’ ensembles for a faithful rendition of the play.
Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (not a children’s show, or part of Horrible Histories, as the title makes it sound), is one of seemingly few plays around in Scottish theatre today which is written and performed in Scots. While it is fantastic to see the language still alive and well in theatre, it does unfortunately force some limitations upon the audience: it will probably be lost on anyone who has had no exposure at all to the Scots language. It is definitely a Scottish play.
The plot line of the play can easily be guessed from the title: it follows the story of Mary Queen of Scots upon her return to Scotland until her death, and of the parallel life of Queen Elizabeth. The mix of both theatres’ ensembles creates a formidable cast who pull no punches in delivering this sometimes witty, sometimes tricky play. Emily Winter (Elizabeth) and Shauna Macdonald (Mary) are the wonderful antitheses of each other, providing an assured, stark contrast of the two queens; an opposition which is highlighted further by the double-casting of each queen as the other’s maidservant. Macdonald is physically striking as Mary, but while her Scots-French accent is consistent and adds authenticity, it is somewhat unpleasant on the ears and unfortunately makes her the hardest character to understand.
The play avoids any period/historical drama categorisation through a great deal of artistic decisions in terms of set, costumes and staging. The play is deliberately anachronistic, with a set combining urban modernity with the seventeenth century in a way designed to remind the audience that perhaps not much has actually changed since the 1690s. Neil Murray’s costumes – often block colours, slightly dishevelled and anachronistic too – also complement his set well. On a one-off visit to see the show, however, the thought process behind all these artistic decisions remains a bit of a mystery.
The nature of the script also means that the story – particularly towards the end – becomes very fast-paced to the point where affairs are merely events: there is a distinct lack of chemistry between the characters. The play appears to be more about the themes, and the romances are only there because they historically happened: merely a catalyst to move forward more themes. It is a shame, since the actual story behind Mary, Bothwell and Lord Darnley is fascinating.
In hindsight, I find myself appreciating the play a lot more, although I would still have liked it to have ended ten minutes earlier: a leap into modern Scotland, presumably as another attempt to emphasise modern parallels, is rather unnecessary. I would not jump at the chance to see it again, but a few years down the line I may give it another go to see if I can understand it more. If one likes the actual play, then this was a commendable production of it.
Image credits – Douglas McBride, courtesy of the Dundee Rep