Theatre Review: Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (King’s Head Theatre, London)

Caw-blimey, guv'nor! Shelley Lang as the fantastic narrator La Corbie. Photograph: Christopher Tribble. Courtesy of Kevin Wilson PR.

Caw-blimey, guv’nor! Shelley Lang as the fantastic narrator La Corbie. Photograph: Christopher Tribble. Courtesy of Kevin Wilson PR.

Rating: ****

History, for many, isn’t exactly the most exciting of subjects, whether it involves historical figures portrayed as Mr. Men or not. But the Tudor dynasty, with all its blood and sex, has been intriguing the masses of late, with hit TV shows such as The Tudors and novels/films like The Other Boleyn Girl. Yet Liz Lochhead’s play about the life of Mary Stuart of Scotland and the relationship she had with her cousin Queen Elizabeth I has oddly not been seen in London for a full 25 years.

This overdue revival is given a home under the re-branded King’s Head Theatre company, now known as TheatreUpClose, and is a brilliant start to the famous fringe venue’s next chapter.

You’re welcomed into the auditorium reset as a thrust by Katie Bellman’s littered scrubland where a crow, La Corbie, awaits to tell you the real story of how a pretty Catholic queen met her bloody end. This shabby, grubby, and rubbish-strewn waste-land seems like the perfect stage for a tale of devious politics, betrayal, and lust. And sure enough it is. But if it seems that this simple yet impressive set doesn’t seem like it could possibly represent the length and breadth of “wan island” ruled by “twa queens”, it’s because the rest is conjured up by some excellent direction and a superb cast.

Indeed, the entire company carry the play with brilliant talent and tempo. All of them are exceptional and do credit to the theatre’s recent Equity House Agreement. But there are a couple of stand-out performances. For starters, you couldn’t ask for a better narrator as Shelley Lang as La Corbie. A native Glaswegian, she manages to make the throaty vowels and harsh constants of Lochhead’s Scots-soaked text lilt and bounce. She also has a tremendous hold over metre too, managing to recite her dialogue, which comprises mostly of rhyming couplets, without ever making it feel contrived. She brims with a cheeky and juvenile energy that makes you hang on her every word.

Furthermore Sarah Thom as Elizabeth is phenomenal. Playing such an imposing monarch is no mean feat, but she handles it with grace and ease. She manages to fully convey a domineering presence and confidence of the unyielding monarch, desperate to ensure her sex doesn’t get in the way of her ability as queen. But Thom also manages to get straight to the essence of her bitterness and fretting at how Mary manages to trump her every power-move at the expense of her own happiness, making her an utter marvel to watch.

Robin Norton-Hale’s direction does well to keep the pace moving in what could very easily be a static and dull play, though his great cast makes light work for him in keeping the audience engaged. She manages to ensure that nothing drags by making the changes between scenes quick and that there’s always a sense of movement and direction. She also makes very good use of physical theatre to add visual interest. It also means things like fight and sex scenes aren’t at risk of looking naff, something which can easily happen if not done well. But there are a few times where his abstract approach is just a little silly. For example, there’s a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ‘Music Box’ style-sequence which just doesn’t seem to really fit in with the rest of the play’s grim shabby-chic. But you can’t blame her for trying to ensure the dialogue never labours.

And it’s the text that is only the real issue with the play. Although as marvellous as Lochhead does to make the coarse Scots language sing lyrically and wax poetically, ingeniously reminiscent of English Jacobean playwriting, it does mean that many passages are difficult to understand unless you’re familiar with the dialect. Because of this, if you’ve not brushed up on you history homework before the show you can end up a little lost as to what’s going on, especially as a lot of factual nuance is really revelled in to give depth to the characters. Thankfully, due to the cast’s ability and Norton-Hale’s direction, even if you’ve gotten a bit lost on the way there are some moments of powerful and beguiling theatre that make the struggle worth your while. And eventually, you do catch up with what’s happening and leave feeling entertained and educated.

Overall this is a dark, intense, and ragged experience; a Scottish play that even Shakespeare himself couldn’t have written better.

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off plays at the King’s Head Theatre, London, N1 1QN, until 22 June 2013. Tickets are £20.50 – £25.00 (concessions available). To book visit www.kingsheadtheatre.com.

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