Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off
Timely revival of Liz Lochhead's seminal allegorical play
Liz Lochhead’s powerful, playful dissection of a key chapter in Scotland’s history may have debuted at the height of the Thatcherite 80s, but the play’s central themes – the pernicious effects of sectarianism, the Scots’ complex relationship with our nearest neighbours and the thorny path negotiated by women in power – are more urgently relevant than ever. Tony Cownie’s production for the Lyceum underlines this sense of immediacy, surrounding his historical figures with contemporary objects such as mobile phones and traffic cones in the style of a Caravaggio Biblical scene, and presenting the action on a cluttered set featuring such anachronisms as a red phone box and a wall covered in graffiti.
The performances, too, capture the mix of ribald irreverence and seriousness in the script. Shauna Macdonald brings a quiet determination and desperation to the role of Mary, while Liam Brennan gives a blistering turn as John Knox, portraying the clergyman as a bellowing Orangeman driven almost demented by his fearful fascination with the beautiful queen. Ann Louise Ross, meanwhile, is in feisty, energetic form as the play’s narrator, La Corbie.
While rooted in historical events, Lochhead’s text is never more than a beat or two away from the present tense. The play’s bold final scene, in which the players take on the role of children mercilessly bullying their sole Catholic schoolmate is a shocking depiction of sectarianism’s ugly first stirrings and a timely reminder of its potential to drive vast rifts through societies.
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, until Sat 15 Oct.