Liz Lochhead took one of the most enduring of Scottish myths and shook it up completely. Fast, funny and dark – starting in a circus ring and ending in a playground – this version of Mary Queen of Scots was a theatrical triumph.
First performed by Communicado Theatre Company at the Lyceum Studio Theatre, Edinburgh, 1987. Directed by Gerry Mulgrew.
Mary – Anne Lacey
Elizabeth – Alison Peebles
La Corbie – Myra McFadyen
Hepburn O’ Bothwell – Stuart Hepburn
Knox – Gerry Mulgrew
Darnley/Leicester – John Mitchell
Dancer/Riccio – Frank McConnell
Fiddler – Anne Wood
The Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum Theatre is staging a co-production of the play with Dundee Rep Ensemble until 15 October. Directed by Tony Cownie, it features Shauna Macdonald as Mary and Emily Winter as Elizabeth.
'National bird: the crow, the corbie, le corbeau, moi! How me? Eh? Eh? Eh? Voice like a choked laugh. Ragbag o' a burd in ma black duds, a' angles and elbows and broken oxter feathers, black beady een in ma executioner’s hood. No braw, but Ah think Ah ha’e a sort of black glamour.’
The play re-tells the fairly well-known story of the life and death of Mary Queen of Scots.
The power-play and intrigue which led to her imprisonment and execution are played out. And the cast – as well as taking the key roles – changes from circus performers to commoners to nobles to mummers to school children. Sometimes the story is driven along by partisan commentary from these various groups.
It is difficult to convey anything of a play in a few words, but these – from the original programme – certainly give a flavour:
'La Corbie tellt it, o' her ain Corbie’s True Historie o' Queen Marie:
'In the First Pairt it is womanische, daurk, dern, close and saicret, wauch cunning and thrang, concernit wi' negotiations and conciliations. In which:- see La Corbie and her Guisers, richt branky and roarie, mak' a geggie o' The Twa Kingdoms and the Circus o' Suitors; glisk, as in a magic keekin-gless, The Manners o' Queens and Maids; tak' sides, if ye maun, in the Divers Controversies o' Mary and Knox; suffer wi' the passions o' Twa Queens Wha Maun deny love; ken th empty wames and leal herts o' the Common People at Mary Queen o' Scots Progress; warm at Mary and Darnley in a Fever; daunce at A Royal Waddin' ...
'Mary, deposed Queen of The Scots, was beheaded at Fotheringay Castle 401 years ago at the age of 44 after 19 years in English prisons.'
The play has an energy, even on the page, that comes from the vigorous and creative use of Scots. The audience is guided through the intrigue by 'La Corbie', the all-knowing, cynical and singing chorus – but can we trust her?
The street song that the title comes from must have given Liz Lochhead the idea for the brilliant final scene, where Mary's executioners are children in a playground.
Lochhead draws out the tension – between the two queens, between Scotland and England, between Catholic and Protestant, between women and men, between political expediency and sexual attraction. And in doing so she shines the spotlight on tensions that are with us still.
All that, but funny and tragic too.
'It draws the most dramatic and uncomfortable parallels between the sacrifice of Mary in her day, and the myriad sexual, political and religious deformities that still plague the Scottish psyche ... a play that blasts Mary's myths not out of mindless radicalism, but because it has something more important to say about her and about us, about womanhood and the nation.'
– 'The Guardian'.
'A triumph ... the characterizations never slide over into caricature but are full-bodied, subtle, humorous and virile.'
– 'Time Out'.
'A smashing, witchy production'.
– 'The Observer'.
'Exhilirating, abrasive and hugely enjoyable'.
– 'Financial Times'.
© National Library of Scotland 2010