If the last few weeks have shown us anything, it is that all the best stories are true and you don’t need to go to the trouble of making something up to find dramatic twists and turns, larger than life characters and events so mind-boggling that they would never make convincing fiction. Rona Munro knows that all too well having penned successful historical trilogy The James Plays at the National Theatre a few years back, drawing on the real life complexities of Scottish monarchy, politics and power play in the fifteenth-century. Now her latest piece treads similar ground in its examination of Mary Queen of Scots and the series of fateful activities that led to her being deposed in favour of her infant son in 1567. This superbly written 90-minute drama passes in the blink of an eye but the fate of a country, a Queen and a scandal-ridden woman are brilliantly contained within.
For the women of the sixteenth-century, it is their virtue for which they are best remembered and for which history continues to judge them. Elizabeth I will forever be the Virgin Queen, aligning her chastity with the peace and success of her reign, seen as an act of great sacrifice and shrewdness in order to protect her realm from foreign invasion and the machinations of over-mighty subjects. The life of her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, however, is far more checkered, a tale of lust, murder and three husbands, a lured life that ended in imprisonment and execution by her English relative.
The compromised virtue of Mary Queen of Scots is her most renowned feature but as Josie Rourke did in her recent film, Munro looks to reposition Mary’s reputation, not perhaps absolving her completely but at least opening up sufficient doubt about the ways in which history has recorded her life and actions. Also very much in tune with recent societal shifts, Munro’s play asks if Mary was the wanton murderess of record or a multiple rape victim unable to escape her captors and the shame they heaped upon her?
Mary focuses on two extended conversations, that the writer imagines, taking place in those pockets of history where everything changes, barely remembered moments between great events where decisions happened that affected the course of history. Munro’s writing is sharp and fearsome, barely a word wasted as time presses her characters to act before it is too late. These are two moments of national crisis, a few months apart, in which, crucially, the monarch herself is given no voice. Her life and the future of the crown is being decided for her by the three characters in this play standing in for the multitudes of Scottish citizens and nobility with divided but certain opinions about their Queen and the respectable way government should be conducted. The first moment of decision comes immediately following the murder of Mary’s first husband, the English Lord Darnley, and the second a little while after marrying the Earl of Bothwell, alleged to have killed Darnley, for which her throne is taken from her.
But Munro’s play is no straightforward rehash or re-enactment of well-known events, and instead the writer explores first the personal connection to Mary through her champion James Melville whose loyalty and belief is the subject of this drama, and then the very concept of a royal but principally of a female body that is either freely given or seized by force. As Munro unfolds her debates, presenting both sides of the argument in an attempt to convince Melville to reveal and re-evaluate what he knows, the two strands of this story become emphatically entwined. Mary’s disputed body and the future of the nation as expressed through the devotion of the man who has know her since she was 9-years-old are the same. But to make that into tangible drama, Munro plays out power-shift conversations that demonstrate the acquiescence of her court and, ultimately, the 450-years silencing of a woman’s voice.
And Munro wastes no time getting into the drama and the audience arrives mid-crisis, almost mid-sentence. Melville is in control, an assumed power in a room with two subordinates in government rank and class in which he must convince an actual gatekeeper to allow his Queen to leave against the wishes of her lordly Council. Thompson, then, is in the hot seat for this opening salvo, debates directed at him as Melville and local orator / maid Agnes try to sway his soul and his duty. And conversations that the play will revisit several times begin here – is Mary devil or angel? But to give these discussions shape, Munro presents something akin to a courtroom drama, a virtual trial of a woman who never gets to provide her own testimony. Whether Thompson will submit to Melville’s entreaties creates shape for the drama, while the influence of the only female voice in the room is particularly complex, almost reveling in the scandal but also noting the division between Mary’s much disputed Catholicism, her moral value and a country trying to build a Protestant faith.
The allegiance between Thompson and Agnes becomes increasingly pertinent to the much longer scene that follows in which a complete inversion has taken place. Thompson is now another kind of gatekeeper, the right-hand man of the Early of Moray who has set himself up as Regent to the tiny James VI and who requires Melville to submit to the enforced abdication of the Queen. How significant that the authority that Melville held only a few months before has disintegrated. The extended exchange is absolutely gripping, particularly as the question of Mary’s sexuality becomes the centrifuging force of this debate. Who saw what and when is the key to this discussion, and the pressure Thompson exerts on Melville to shift or rethink not just his position on Mary’s queendom but on the evidence of his own eyes about her character.
And it is terrifically exciting to watch yet another ‘good’ man exploring his own guilt-ridden feelings of disloyalty, of the refusal to admit even quietly to himself that he doubts the integrity of the person he has always had such faith in. This is the heart of the show, what do people close their ears and eyes to when they don’t want to make an uncomfortable choice and, having been so certain of what he thought he knew, can Melville be dissuaded from his own evidence by the impure motives of others?
This, Munro argues, is where history and reputation are forged, not in the great moments or the dubious motives of those making a grab for power, but in the silent agreement of those who go along with it or at least allow it to happen. Something extraordinary occurs in this conversation that moves more than one heart as Munro presents two alternative realities or two Marys for the audience to consider. Is she the most maligned woman in history or the most foolish? Did she follow her heart and exact poor judgement or was agency routinely stripped from her by a world of powerful men who sought and succeeded in controlling her via her body?
And over this Munro lays another useful filter for us to consider, using the character of Agnes to explore the extent to which these notions of Mary are part of a subsequent historical design recorded and perpetuated by men who, first, justify her removal for significant failings in her virtue but, even more importantly, cannot understand or correctly interpret behaviour associated with sexual abuse and victimisation. What is seen by them as Mary’s willing compliance is, as Prima Facie has recently shown, never quite that simple. Was the blaming of the victim a convenient tool for political expediency as male voices conspire to condemn her, and why is the word of women so clearly distrusted in this play? Munro presents two claims at eye-witness accounts, one by a man who allows himself to rethink his memories into a more amendable position and one by a woman other than Mary whose alternative testimony is instantly dismissed.
These kinds of precise and pointed drama require real skill and energy in performance, particularly in Roxana Silbert’s tightly controlled production that barely pauses for breath before upending the structure it has established. Douglas Henshall brings real range and control to the role of Melville, convincingly charting the slow degrees of movement within his mind as his certainty diminishes. This is almost a deconstruction of character and Henshall leaves Melville in a very different social and emotional position than he started from. In the opening scene, Henshall’s character is full of swagger, so entirely sure of himself and his cause, as well as his status in the room, that the execution of power is clearly something that Melville is at ease with. The contrast a few months later – only a few seconds in stage time – is so impressive, Henshall’s James is already a changed man, instantly aware he is not the most powerful man in this room and throughout the lengthy second scene, exploring his inner conflict as he reads the writing on the wall and finds a different truth buried within himself, one he barely knew was there, precipitating a collapse with significant consequences for everyone.
Matching Henshall, Brian Vernel has the same shift to effect, first as the servant needing to be convinced and later as the man making the argument and certain of his own power to control what happens in the second room, and thereby what happens to a Queen and her baby son. Vernel is excellent in both circumstances, his performance absolutely relishing the rapid rise to influence that only significant and radical political flux can facilitate. He basks in the shift in responsibilities between himself and Melville, all the while determined he knows, in both conversations, what his duty is and how to fulfill it.
Rona Morison has a very different purpose for Agnes whose movement between points of view is better grounded in a personal and religious integrity than either of her companions. Certain she too knows the truth about Mary, Morison’s Agnes forms allegiances that cross between the two conversations and while she may believe that gives her a special status, both men are quick to remind of her that her station and her gender count against her opinion. The role Agnes plays in changing the audience’s perceptions of Mary as the debates unfold is crucial and Morison provides just enough grounding for Agnes to make her opinion one worth hearing even if her voice is officially silenced.
Arguably, this drama doesn’t need a couple of segue moments that bring Mary to life, the audience has enough of a sense of her from the ways that other characters describe her, and unlike many other historical stage epics, Mary suggests you don’t need three hours of Schiller to capture the essence of this divisive story and turn it into a exacting thriller. Between a murder and a scandalous marriage to the man who may have raped her, history may be built around big personalities and memorable events but the decisive moments are the ones in between, where small cabals of men sit in rooms and draw up what the future will look like. They even decide how a woman and Queen will be remembered.
Mary is at the Hampstead Theatre until 26 November with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog