JOYCE MCMILLAN on MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS GOT HER HEAD CHOPPED OFF and OUR TEACHER’S A TROLL (NTS at Rothesay Pavilion) and AFTER MARY ROSE (Magnetic North at Howden Park Centre, Livingston) for Scotsman Arts 30.4.09
Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off 5 stars *****
Our Teacher’s A Troll 4 stars ****
After Mary Rose 2 stars **
IT’S OFTEN THE FATE OF National Theatres to be founded in an age of fervent debate about the nation and its future; and then to find themselves living and working in more complex times, when the range of themes they need to address is much less clear. The National Theatre of Scotland came so late in the process that led to Scottish devolution – seven years after the Parliament itself, in 2006 – that it has largely taken this problem in its post-modern stride, developing a structure that can sponsor a huge range of different events simultaneously. And it has generated some massive main-stage hits that fully capture the complex spirit of the times, from the legendary Black Watch, to Dominic Hill’s magnificent Dundee version of Peer Gynt, which opens its first London run at the Barbican this weekend.
For all that, though, there’s something truly exhilarating about the sight of a top-flight national ensemble, in full voice, confronting a great text that wrestles with the character and history of the nation itself. And that’s exactly what audiences around the Highlands and Islands are seeing now, in the NTS’s new touring version of Liz Lochhead’s superb 1987 play Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. 22 years on, it’s a text which still takes the breath away with the fearless theatricality of its cabaret style, and the sheer force of the glittering poetic links it forges between the fraught and unresolved politics of Scotland in the 16th century, and tensions over gender and religion that still haunt our society today; and this new production by Alison Peebles, who played Elizabeth of England in the original production, comes as close to doing it justice as any staging since then.
It should be said that for all its thrilling quality, this Mary Queen Of Scots is not flawless. Above all, it lacks the deep, musical sense of rhythm in handling the final moments of both acts – and particularly the startling playground coda to the whole show – that would truly deliver the full value of the text to the audience.
Everything else about the show, though, is so brilliantly vivid, intense and intelligent that it becomes irresistible. Kenny Miller’s design is a triumph, sandwiching the action between giant transparent crosses of St. George and St. Andrew in floor and ceiling, and dressing the two queens and the chorus, La Corbie, in fabulous post-modern reinterpretations of glamorous period dress, with perhaps the most breathtakingly stylish shoes ever seen on a Scottish stage. And the performances are simply terrific, from Joyce Falconer’s terrifying, richly-feathered Corbie, through Angela Darcy’s superb Elizabeth, to Jo Freer’s fantastically elegant and aristocratic Mary, Lewis Howden’s thuggish Knox, and a powerfully wicked and sexy Bothwell in John Kielty.
The play’s politics, of course, remain contested, as they should. But in asking what happened to Scottish womanhood in the course of our great and radical Protestant revolution – to gorgeousness, to sensual love, to elegance and adornment with a Scottish accent, and to the power and beauty of female desire and imagery in our culture – Lochhead asks a question that remains unanswered, four and a half centuries on; and both her play, and this memorable production, not only evoke what was lost in that titanic struggle, but begin to restore it to us, through the power of a great contemporary imagination, and the magic of theatre itself.
This week’s other offerings are inevitably overshadowed by such a show; but Joe Douglas’s NTS production of Dennis Kelly’s Our Teacher’s A Troll, touring alongside Mary Queen Of Scots, certainly offers a vivid hour of drama for children over five, delivered with terrific commitment by the same fine ensemble. For myself, I find Kelly’s modish anti-adult stance slightly tiresome; some Rothesay six-year-olds looked quite rightly baffled by the idea of an over-busy Mum with a horrible plastic face, who doesn’t even care that the new headteacher is a child-eating troll. But the troll himself is a huge, magnificent and genuinely scary figure; and the story of how twins Sean and Holly reach an understanding with him is both subtle and salutary, particularly when delivered with the help of a fiercely-bashed miniature drum-kit, and the kind of junior rock’n’roll sensibility that has primary-school audiences roaring approval.
As for After Mary Rose, the latest show from Nicholas Bone’s thoughtful and enquiring Magnetic North company, there’s no doubting the good and serious intentions behind this modern reworking of JM Barrie’s chilling drama, written in the aftermath of the First World War. Barrie’s theme is death, and the horrifying idea that there may be something worse than death; a howling, clutching oblivion that sometimes touches people then lets them go again, to return blighted and strange.
D. Jones’s thoughtful script takes large chunks of Barrie’s original drama, and reworks them so as to make space for some new scenes reflecting on the possible experience of Mary Rose’s soldier son, Harry, following her second disappearance. But for all the potential of this idea, nothing about it seemed to be working as effective theatre, on its opening night at the fine new Howden Park Theatre in Livingston. Claire Halleran’s tip-tlted island design looked good, on the spacious new stage. But dramatically, the whole show – with a potentially impressive cast of six – seems cramped, static, slow, and derivative; and washed with a gloomy, self-conscious lyricism that says much less that Barrie’s original play, and hardly adds to its complex meanings at all.
Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Our Teacher’s A Troll in Fort William and Skye next week, and on tour until 6 June. After Mary Rose at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 6-9 May, and on tour until 23 May.