Lyceum stages Glory on Earth, historical conflicts that still resound today (3 stars)

Lyceum stages Glory on Earth, historical conflicts that still resound today

Credit: Drew Farrell

John Knox and Mary, Queen of Scots throw down in battle for the soul of Scotland

Glory on Earth sits between historical epic and a tragic reflection on a period of Scottish conflict that still echoes in contemporary politics. When Mary, Queen of Scots returns to her throne as a Catholic, misogynistic protestant John Knox is ready to challenge her rule, drawing on scripture and support from within Mary's court itself.

Linda McLean's script takes advantage of the meetings between the queen and Knox in a series of confrontations that eloquently explore the tension between the teenage monarch – with her fancy European manners – and the reformer who sees a decadent threat in her pious Catholicism. Knox is even given a sympathetic defence of his position, despite its unfashionable insistence on religious authority and undercurrent of puritanical anxiety. This generosity of the script extends equally to Mary: her youthful enthusiasm may leave her at a disadvantage against the seasoned theologian, but her joyfulness and moral courage presents her defeat as a tragic downfall.

In line with this neoclassical conflict, McLean lends her characters a poetic and elegant language: while Mary and her court descend into adolescent banter about husbands and break out into dancing, her dignity as a queen is established both in her attitude towards her subjects and her final acceptance of death. Unfortunately, the performances do not always capture the tone of the script, sometimes rendering Knox whiny and Mary petulant.

Lyceum stages Glory on Earth, historical conflicts that still resound today

credit: Drew Farrell'
There are moments of admirable visual spectacle in the staging – as when the arches of the palace descend or Mary arrives in Scotland, bathed in white light – and the conceit of an ensemble swapping between Mary's companions and courtly advisors allows both dramatic interludes and a sense of the queen's interior dialogues as she struggles to maintain optimism against a situation that she is ill-equipped to control. A lack of clarity in these scenes often disguises any deeper analysis of the historical relevance of the central debate, becoming caught up in evocative but vague singing and dancing routines. While they add to the atmosphere – Mary grooving while Knox stalks her corridors – they never quite settle on whether they are intended to evoke contemporary parallels or historical re-enactments.

Overall, the production lingers in its early modern scenario and lacks explicit references to the continued sectarianism of Scottish society. This problem is also evident in the Blood of the Young's Daphne Oram, which locates sexism in the past and becomes a comment on an unenlightened past rather than addressing continued prejudices. David Greig's direction vacillates between naturalism and a symbolic drama of ideas, moving at a consistent pace that places equal emphasis on the interludes as the highly dramatic confrontations.

As often in contemporary Scottish theatre – the Lyceum's Jumpy or Dundee Rep's Monstrous Bodies – the worthiness of the subject reflects a belief in theatre as a location for the exploration of serious issues. The unevenness of tone – between the script's highly formal language and moments of levity – suggest an uncertainty in the production of how to combine this with a dynamic, adventurous dramaturgy. Glory addresses a crucial moment in the development of Scottish cultural and political identity, but without connecting it clearly to the present, it risks becoming an epic narrative that reiterates a sentimental version of history. Nevertheless, moments of scenographic brilliance, McLean's intelligent scripting of the key confrontations and the hints towards the ongoing battle between temporal and spiritual authority ensure that the production offers an insight into both past conflicts and the potential of historical theatre.

Glory on Earth, Lyceum, Edinburgh until Sat 10 Jun

Glory on Earth

David Greig directs Linda Maclean's story which re-imagines the historic meetings between Mary Queen of Scots and John Knox.

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