“Mary” is the latest play directed by Roxana Silbert on the main stage of the Hampstead Theatre, written by Rona Munro as the sixth instalment in the cycle “The James Plays”, about the medieval Stuart monarchs of Scotland. It is a dense and rich piece of work, especially when it comes to its well researched historical aspects, less so when it tries to move us as an audience. The play explores the story of Queen Mary of Scots and her subjects at a pivotal time when Scotland was deeply divided by clashing political forces. What is interesting is the game of mirrors we are presented with from start to end. We almost never see Mary on stage, but rather three other characters: James Melville, an officer of the Scottish Government played by Douglas Henshall, Thompson, a servant of the court, played by Brian Vernel, and a fervent protestant servant of the royal household, Agnes, played by Rona Morison.
The small cast has great synergy and does a very good job of lifting the heavily literary text of the play off the page. However, it is difficult to relate to their dilemmas and embark on a personal journey with any of them. The play is successfully built within a complex historical context, with each of the three characters carrying perspectives and personal dilemmas profoundly enmeshed within the social, political and economic issues of the time. There are touching moments of humanity and humour from each of them but overall the very long scenes and extensive dialogues feel like heavy work for the listener. What suddenly takes centre stage in the second half of the play is the rape of Queen Mary by James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, and the wider and important conversation of traditionally twisting women’s narratives to serve men’s agendas, sexual violence and the responsibility men have in holding themselves accountable and speaking up. This feels like the clearest and most emotionally resonant and contemporary aspect of the play. Unfortunately, it comes quite late in the story and doesn’t really succeed in bringing together all the different threads and themes explored up to that point.
The direction of Roxana Silbert is simple and effective, the three characters continuously move and shift across the stage as if stranded on a precarious raft, trying to balance their personal, political and religious interests. It is an ambitious work that courageously asks the audience its full intellectual attention, more or less successfully using history as a tool to make us look at the very complex forces at work in our times.
It runs until 26 November.
Photo: Manuel Harlan