Hampstead Theatre, London – until 26 November 2022
For 400 years the reputation of Mary, Queen of Scots, has been battled over: she has been called victim and whore, murderess and heroine, flighty and heroic. Romance flowers in drama and opera: she was a young mother, beautiful, imprisoned, finally executed by her cousin Elizabeth I. Dramatists usually gather around that last period and imaginary meetings between the two women. But Rona Munro here is focusing on another point in Mary’s life, with a modern and feminine eye. Her historical passion lit up Scotland and then the National Theatre stage a few years back with the three “James Plays”, about the first three kings of that name in the 15c (there’s a fourth play, not yet come south).
But in this static but powerful 90-minutes, in which the Queen herself is offstage except for two glimpses, Munro concentrates on the period before her forced abdication in 1567. Her husband Darnley has been murdered by the thuggish Earl of Bothwell. But within weeks Mary – a Catholic, which was a source of unease in newly Protestant Scotland – marries him under Protestant rites. Briefly this won him power before he was overthrown. The play opens with a court servant, Thompson, having just been beaten up by Bothwell while the Queen’s paternal old adviser Melville (Douglas Henshall) tells the young man to clean up and not frighten her, as she is already scared. The third in the room is Agnes, a devout Protestant enthusiast with little time for Mary.
We meet them again months later after the fall of Bothwell, in Holyrood Palace for a long, sometimes exhausting, courtroom-style argumentative assault on Melville by Thompson and Agnes (imagined figures, but representing the political and religious passions of the time). They need his signature for her abdication and disgrace, implying the Bothwell marriage to be labelled as whorish treachery and guilt for her husband’s death.
Melville, who was close to her court through the time of her abduction, is convinced she was raped, never consenting, assaulted and forced and silenced. Rona Morison’s Agnes, a pillar of unbending judgment and rectitude, pours womanly scorn on the absent Mary, reckoning that even if she was raped, she came to like it and was willing. Brian Vernel’s Thompson is all politics, staccato, pushing away at the increasingly disturbed and defensive Melville, demanding details like a prosecuting barrister. The older man, hating to retell it of the girl he knew from childhood, is pushed to describe the assault – public, in front of roaring nobles, heard by him in the next room. And, damningly, to admit to her calm afterwards: not calling for help, not visibly outraged. This, in the increasing temperature of the argument, is of course held against her.
Munro is making a very modern point about the self-blaming trauma of such assaults. Melville knows what he knows, but slowly fades in his determination: Munro has said she wants to depict the men who let these things go unpunished, and the last few minutes of this scene certainly do that. Henshall’s subtly shamed demeanour is sharply shown. But he’s a politician and a patriot: the future of Scotland, potential peace under a Regency, is at stake. Conversely, the more Agnes hears of what almost certainly happened to another woman, the more her mind changes in the other direction. And she adds with shame a horrifying memory of her own willingness to stand by when Mary was taken prisoner and cried , dishevelled, from a window amid her male captors. Morison here is shiveringly powerful.
It is a good theme, and the writing is taut. But it is a long slow burn, static, undramatic until the last third. The audience was tautly silent though, shocked. That I suppose was the point. The denouement is sudden and dramatic : suddenly a chorus – credited in the programme – reminds us that beyond tight arguments in small rooms there is confused angry popular feeling and a country to save.
To 26 nov. Hampsteadtheatre.com