The link between history and heritage was brought to the fore with much vitality in Alexander Gillespie’s production of Liz Lochead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. Praise for the opening night abounded and the second night of this show, put on as part of On the Rocks Festival, had a full house.
The opening of the play set a frantic, engrossing tone. Becca Schwarz, as the chorus character La Corbie, burst forth from a trunk on stage. From the outset her speech was rich in energy, with her role as the mocking articulator of truth consistent throughout. The flourishes of her sinister crow calls and playful activity piqued audience interest during a play which is weighted, in places, by its political and religious focus. La Corbie is required to guide the audience through the actor’s transitioning of roles, which Schwarz managed with precision. One slight pitfall –which was true of the production as a whole – was delivery. Being seated in the 4th row up, there was a want for stronger projection – which I sense others may have felt too, since many of the humorous asides seemed only to get a chuckle from the front rows. However, this detracted in only a minor way, much of which can be put down to the frustrating acoustics of Venue 1.
The ensemble scenes were full of vigour – the cast members playing the motley of ambassadors, courtiers and commoners moved with great fluidity between roles of humour, aggression and intimidation. The tension defining the relationship between the two Queen cousins Mary and Elizabeth was acutely conveyed by Shonagh Smith and Beth Robertson respectively. Smith’s portrayal of Mary was aptly injected with melancholy and passion. Her success with the Scots language with a French accent was impressive – wavering only slightly at points – and for this difficult feat she deserves much praise. Robertson played a brilliant Elizabeth brimming with jealousy and perfectly timed cutting sarcasm.
Audience understanding was much aided by Robertson and Smith’s seamless pronounced transition from Queen to maid. Michael Laird embodied the sensuous shrewd nature of Bothwell with confidence. The confrontation scene between Bothwell and Knox (played by Neil Christy) particularly enraptured the audience – a crescendo in Christy’s performance. The unabashed depiction of the intimate scene between Bothwell and Bessie was admirably undertaken by Smith and Laird. Here, the lighting and staging were used well, imbuing the audience with a sense of voyeurism.
For Riccio’s (played by Mattia Marrioti) execution, set design was again particularly good – with a sheet used to project shadows and a tactful dose of fake blood. Matt Twinley also portrayed well the vulnerable but frustrating Darnely. The fantastic dynamism of the stage helped to reiterate the conflicting personalities of the two sisters. The closing scenes depicted Mary’s fate with poignancy. This production had a strong cast of committed actors and in short, Gillespie has put on a commendable performance, executed with skill.