Chris Cannell reviews Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, directed by Alexander Gillespie and produced by Amanda Hollinger, which went up Sunday 6th April in Venue 1 as part of the On the Rocks Festival.
Well she did. The ending of the play is in its name. The very inevitability of it lends a Shakespearean grandeur or Aristotelian grace to an otherwise very domestic play. This is not to say this production was pedestrian; it was intimate, certainly, but also ambitious.
A disclaimer: I am not an English student, and I know this play is a stalwart on the syllabus. Therefore, treat not my words as gold, but merely as the sounding of the trumpet by the monstrous legion that is reviewers.
To call the production too ambitious is not to do it down, but I would like to get the negatives out of the way first. As ever with Venue 1 there were issues of clarity, especially with the thick range of accents and—for such a witty play—this was a little annoying. Using a chorus to change set is usually a good idea, but in Venue 1 the size of the space means that a simple set change can take a long time without the help of a dedicated stage team. Nonetheless, these are quite minor issues that gradually cleared up during the more technical second half as the play progressed and as the cast matured into the space.
And it was the space that shone. It used to be a truism that Venue 1 was badly used due to its size. Then, the closure of the Byre made it (sadly) St. Andrew’s premier theatre location. However, this play shows that the space needn’t hold the fear it used to. The starkly lit, floor-level production made excellent use of whole-cast choreography to emphasise certain points and used simple stage effects to show action on a stage no flash (except for the kirk-o’-fields explosion, of course); it was good theatre-craft. This is a definite prop to director Alexander Gillespie, producer Amanda Hollinger and the entire technical team. The costumes were excellent, where they were used. Rosemary Hall must be given plaudits for musical direction and pristine playing. Despite a few missteps in lighting cues the overall style was estimable: utilizing a simple set, emphasising the domesticity of the relationships between historical figures and allowing these characters to shine through.
The play itself rests on the relationship between Mary I Stuart of Scotland and Elizabeth I Tudor of England. Portraying such storied names as the Queen of Scots and Gloriana could be daunting, but not to the admirable leads of this production: Shonagh Smith (as Mary) and Beth Robertson (as Liz). Their relationship was the fire at the centre of this play, even though they never actually met onstage or in history. Beth’s adamantine hardness of Elizabeth trying to make her way in a man’s world and Shonagh’s subtle and more sotto voce femininity (and well-sustained French accent) provided excellent counterpoints to one another. Likewise—as each other’s maids—both actresses demonstrated dexterity of accent and acting. Other notable performances were Neil Christy as a neurotic, slightly ‘Woody Allen-y’ John Knox, Becca Schwarz as the crow narrator, the excellent Matt Twinley as a soft and milky Darnley, and a sex-and-power charged Michael Laird as Bothwell. Mattia Mariotti lent his ever-novel take to the (appropriately) Italian secretary David Riccio. The chorus/players also gave their best, adding a Hamlet-esque kick to the production.
It is this neo-Shakespearianism that really gave the play its edge: a dream of Elizabeth’s foreshadowing Mary’s death; the cross-dressed play-within-a-play; the recurring motifs of speech and of blood. The legend goes that Riccio’s blood, spilled by his murder, has never washed off the floor of Holyrood house, and you can still see it to this day (perhaps with the help of a Historic Scotland lick-of-paint every now and then); his blood was left on stage in this production as a stark reminder of the fundamental difference between men and women. A women’s place is have children, it states: the cause of blood—both menstrual and cardiac—is this rigorous imperative; women can be nothing else, do nothing else, or, in the case of Elizabeth, worry about nothing else. It is a man’s world, and if women try to invade that space, they either must change to become hard or ultra-feminine; either way it is the iron imperative of blood and of children that holds them. “What’s a queen?” asks Knox: certainly not a king. They are all children, and children are all there is.
I was thrown by the play’s ending at first: ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’, as Matthew 19:14 puts it, but the play is right. There is no heaven or hell, no true religion to cause such strife: just humans fumbling in the dark of history, where kings, nobles, and even queens are scared into grabbing power, women, blood, children…anything they can hold on to. The bloodstain is not just the stain of death; it’s the stain of life itself.
Photo credit: Amanda Hollinger