Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. The title handily provides a synopsis of the show, but allow me to embellish it for the sticklers for detail out there. Mary is the story of the Queen of Scots and her first cousin once removed, Elizabeth I. It is remarkable to think that all these events really happened, full as they are of betrayal, sex and blood. Using the old Scots language makes this feel like a time-honoured play, but it benefits from being a modern work.
Mary is presented as a classic being performed in a cabaret bar: a dirty cabaret bar which closed years ago, and now the MC lives in the condemned ruins. So we are given La Corbie, played by the mesmerising Shelley Lang, as our narrator. She speaks to us with a fag dangling from her bottom lip and a bottle of neat vodka in hand. She wears a black velvet gown that has been ravished by time. Riches and extravagance are built upon poverty and ruin.
Mary was written in 1987 by Liz Lochhead and reflects the tensions in Great Britain at the time. Under Margaret Thatcher the north/south divide was stark; that anger can be felt seething under the surface, but does not distract from the engaging story of rival monarchs. Preachers lecture us on the singularity of truth, but what is a country to do when two monarchs sit on two thrones on one island? This is made all the more complex when they are two women of differing religions.
Royalty has always provided inspiration for dramatists, but this seldom-told tale is highly engaging. This is the first time Mary has been performed in London in 25 years, and the King’s Head and director Robin Norton-Hale have made a good choice here. I really must commend the King’s Head for its compliance with Equity pay – a feat unheard of in venues of its size. They are getting excellent value for money as the cast is one of the strongest I’ve seen on the London fringe.
You are lucky to see one performer as talented as Shelley Lang in a production, but Mary gives us two when you add Sarah Thom, playing Elizabeth – indeed, not only Elizabeth but, as with the whole cast, many other characters too. She has a wonderful line about keeping things simple by making them as complicated as possible. This is true for the performance itself, which is so many things at once, but none of them interfere with delivering the action.
It takes a while to attune your ear to the Scots language and dialect at the start. This was made more difficult to begin with due to the overly loud sound of rain that drowns out the first monologue. The end of the show is a scene in which the events unfold again in a playground rather than a royal court. It is an interesting idea and one which I’m sure would resonate for anyone who grew up in a divided community, where which school you attended marked out the sort of person you were.
In pop culture we see a lot of Queen Elizabeth but we don’t often get to see her like this, in a fascinating look at her relationship with Mary Queen of Scots, the closest thing she had to a sister. There is enough of a story in the family dynamic alone, but the politics make the stakes all the higher. Mary spent 20 years locked in a castle – don’t let it be another 20 years until Mary is let out again.
Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off is playing at the King’s Head Theatre until 22 June. For more information and tickets please see the King’s Head website.
Photography by Christopher Tribble.