Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off

Rating **
Reviewed by Tony Peters

Sarah Thom​​Elizabeth
Nora Wardell​Mary
Shelley Lang​​La Corbie
Sean Hart​​Darnley
Jamie Laird​​Hepburn O’Bothwell
Prentis Hancock​John Knox
Michael Longhi​Riccio

Liz Lockhead’s tale of intrigue, betrayal and political machinations in Elizabethan England and Stuart Scotland gets its first revival in more than twenty five years at the (appropriately named) King’s Head as part of its TheatreUpClose programme.

Having spent most of her life in Europe, Mary Stuart returns to Scotland upon the death of her husband, Francis, Dauphin of France. The Catholic Mary is seen by followers of her faith as the rightful queen of not only Scotland, but also England — a situation that presents a threat to her cousin Queen Elizabeth, leader of the Protestant church. Both women are pitched into crisis over the affair, and with neither having husbands to share the burden, they are at the mercy of advisers and courtiers who often have their own agenda.

As you’d expect, it’s the females who are the emotional and dramatic heart of the play and the performances of both leads here can’t be faulted.

Sarah Thom is wholly believable as the scheming Queen Elizabeth, driven by suspicion but who is ultimately almost broken by guilt over Mary’s fate, while Nora Wardell retains a stillness and dignity as the constantly put upon Mary.

It’s the often-lacklustre contributions of the male members of the cast though that prevent this revival from being a total success.

Sean Hart has his moments as Darnley, the abusive drunk who becomes Mary’s husband. However, two scenes of lengthy exposition involving Prentis Hancock as Protestant firebrand John Knox slow the pace and simply don’t have the dramatic resonance to prevent them becoming pretty heavy going. Hancock is not totally to blame; he plays that character well enough, it’s just the speeches themselves are too long and need trimming.

The wickedly funny Shelley Lang provides some welcome comic relief as La Corbie, the story’s narrator, but too much density in some scenes makes this production a worthy but sadly uneven experience.

Written by Liz Lockhead
Directed by Robin Norton-Hale