JOYCE MCMILLAN on MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS GOT HER HEAD CHOPPED OFF at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, THE MISSING at the Tramway, Glasgow, and MEN SHOULD WEEP at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts, 22.9.11
Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off 4 stars ****
The Missing 4 stars ****
Men Should Weep 4 stars ****
IF THEATRE is a great arena for the retelling of shared histories, and for the healing of the old, common wounds of a nation or community, then Scotland, this week, should be on the road to a whole new phase in its history. In Glasgow and Edinburgh, our four leading theatre companies – the National Theatre of Scotland, the Royal Lyceum, Dundee Rep and the Citizens’ Theatre – have together launched three major shows, which try to address three mighty, traumatic scars in Scottish history; and if none of them quite achieves the dazzling, transformative level of energy that makes theatre into a healing art, all three remain powerful and worthwhile fragments of history, with a huge potential to generate debate both about Scotland’s past and future, and about the wider world in which we have to make our way.
Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, first seen in Edinburgh in 1987, and now revived by the Royal Lyceum and Dundee Rep, is one of the greatest verse dramas of the 20th century, a lurid and sizzling two hours of dramatic poetry structured around the conflict – drenched in both religious and sexual politics – between Scotland’s glamorous 16th century queen, Mary, and her clever English cousin, Elizabeth 1. In the rich texture of its language, and the flashing glamour of its cabaret style, the play addresses both the deep roots of sectarian division and violence in Scotland, and the complex gender politics of a moment when Scotland’s Protestant leader, John Knox, famously wrote a pamphlet denouncing the “monstrous regiment” of women – that is, the whole idea that women could govern at all.
Tony Cownie’s patchy production, staged by designer Neil Murray in a 21st century junkyard that tells us precisely nothing about the atmosphere or meaning of the play, never comes close to getting the full measure of this mighty text. It handles the sectarian dimension of the story fairly well, although Liam Brennan’s gloomy Knox misses the sizzling demonic energy of the text; but it shows almost no understanding – in its slightly aimless leading performances and unimpressive verse-speaking, or in the basic choreography of the production – of the gender politics between Mary and Elizabeth on which the whole structure of the drama depends. It does, though, boast a tremendous narrator-figure in Ann Louise Ross’s glamorous, punk-rock Corbie; and it redeems itself in the final scene, with its sudden rush forward through history, and its sharp focus on the uncomfortable truth that violent sectarianism is with us still, unthinking, instinctive, and often fiercely misogynistic in its impact.
If Lochhead’s play is a great text shining through a mediocre production, Andrew O’Hagan’s The Missing – staged by the National Theatre Of Scotland at the Tramway – is a tentative and problematic story about the long-term emotional and social legacy of violent crime and murder, given a hauntingly beautiful staging by the NTS’s John Tiffany. First published in 1995, The Missing is a genre-busting book, a semi-documentary meditation which begins with O’Hagan’s experience as a young journalist covering the Fred and Rosemary West murders in Gloucester, and expands to take in both some key missing persons cases which haunted O’Hagan’s 1970’s childhood in the new town of Irvine, and a wider questioning of whether our society has changed in ways that make some people more “killable”, more likely to slip through the cracks.
There’s no pretending that O’Hagan’s own stage version of the book is dramatic, in any conventional sense; in fact there are moments – in its slow series of searching interviews with the bereaved – when its theatrical energy dims to a subdued flicker, as if we were watching the recording of a radio essay.
In the end, though – powered by David Paul Jones’s beautiful, thoughtful score, often fragmented, then suddenly soaring into an organised chorale of unresolved grief – The Missing emerges as a moving and memorably open-ended piece of theatre, which both pays full respect to the human suffering of those who still mourn the disappeared, and raises some vital questions about the searing gaps in the fabric of our not-so-big society. Tiffany’s direction is impeccable; and the play – which comes accompanied by a Graham Fagen video installation, a thoughtful short community performance, and a powerful audio-journey around the Tramway – draws a remarkable series of performances from its six-strong cast, led by Joe McFadden as the young journalist-narrator, and by Barbara Rafferty, Brigit Forsyth and Myra McFadyen as the kind of middle-aged women who remember too much, and can never forget.
If sectarianism and violent crime are both issues Scotland needs to confront, though, neither seems quite as wide-ranging in its impact as the theme of Ena Lamont Stewart’s great 1947 play Men Should Weep, which famously deals with the corrosive effect of poverty and unemployment on family life. The play’s heroine Maggie Morrison is an exhausted mother of seven, trying to hold things together in a cramped room and kitchen in the Gorbals, during the Great Depression of the 1930’s; and the drama reaches its unresolved crisis at the moment when it becomes clear – to the abject humiliation of Maggie’s beloved husband John – that the family’s only hope of escape, essential to save the life of wee tubercular Bertie, lies in accepting the “whore’s winnings” of eldest daughter Jenny, whose generous allowance from the lover who has set her up in a West End flat represents the largest sum of money the family has ever seen.
Lamont Stewart, in other words, has an unparalleld ability to understand and stage true dramatic conflict; this final cataclysmic row between Jenny and Maggie on one side, and John on the other, is only the last in a tremendous series of confrontations, each one illustrating more powerfully than the last the sheer impossibility of living a decent, joyful, and morally uncompromised life when there isn’t enough money in the house to feed the kids. Graham McLaren’s production – cramped and confined within a single metal container, a one-line joke of a set that places infuriating self-imposed limits on the epic scale and rhythm of the drama – is disappointingly umambitious in style; it comes nowhere near the operatic confidence, beauty and deep humour of the recent production at the National Theatre in London, and often sinks towards a dreary domestic miserabilism that fails to reflect the wit and energy of the text.
It does, though, feature two memorable central performances, from a sweet and spirited Lorraine McIntosh as Maggie, and from Michael Nardone as her true love John, a good man almost broken by poverty, and unable to match his idea of masculinity to the humiliation of his fate, in ways that must reflect the story of tens of thousands of Scottish families, from the 1930’s to the present day.
Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off at the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 15 October, and at Dundee Rep, 19 October-5 November. The Missing at the Tramway, Glasgow, until 1 October. Men Should Weep at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 8 October; King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, 8-12 November; and on tour to Arbroath, Inverness, Aberdeen and Perth.