Back in your school days, do you remember those occasional times where – due surely to no fault of your own – you hadn’t done your homework? You’d be sitting there in class a little lost, not entirely sure what is going on and hoping that it will all click into place and you’ll catch up. This is how I felt come the conclusion of Mary.
This historical play in Hampstead Theatre’s main space feels like it should come with a pre-show required reading list. There’s little in the way of scene setting or background provided. Instead the drama hits the ground at full tilt. So, if like me, you have absolutely no idea about the chasm between religions in Scotland in the 1500s, well, there is a lot that doesn’t really become clear.
To make up for this, the cast more than step up, putting in truly intense performances and conveying severe pressure; each is being dragged down in their own way. Melville (Douglas Henshall) does all he can to stay loyal to Mary, his Queen and lifelong friend, but Thompson (Brian Vernel), a lowly gatekeeper who rises suddenly within the ranks, tests that loyalty. Agnes (Rona Munro) is a servant in the royal household, at first mistrustful and set against Mary due to her Catholicism, but later comes to a sudden change of heart as she hears of the rape and mistreatment of the Queen.
Mary is essentially two long, wordy scenes: the first as Melville works to convince Thompson to raise a gate and allow Mary to leave freely. It’s a boxing match – a one sided boxing match. Melville argues and argues, each point slowly landing on Thompson and eventually overwhelming him until he agrees. Months later, it is Thompson who now needs something from Melville – to denounce Mary, and instead of boxing, it’s more akin to a seduction. It is cajoling and appealing to Melville; to his self-worth and to his patriotism for Scotland. It is through the contrast of these two widely different but successful approaches that Mary lives up to its billing as a political thriller.
Mary herself is an almost unseen presence. She appears twice for fleeting moments, but she is always present as the two men stake their claims on her, deliberating how she can advance their agenda. But she has no say as these two decide her outcome.
As the play ends, a chorus of women from the previously discussed crowd outside break in, shouting in support of the Queen, and we’re left with the conclusion of the story untold. You might need a history book to find out what happened next. Which ultimately leaves Mary somewhat unsatisfying, despite its sharp script and three great performances. In the context of Munro’s full The James Plays Cycle, this is probably a smashing success, but it doesn’t quite manage to stand alone here. Still, ninety minutes with three fantastic actors giving it all makes it worthwhile.
Written by: Rona Munro
Directed by: Roxana Silbert
Design by: Ashley Martin-Davis
Lighting by: Matt Haskins
Composition and sound by: Nick Powell
Movement direction by: Ayse Tashkiran
Produced by: Hampstead Theatre
Mary plays at Hampstead Theatre until 26 November. Further information and bookings can be found here.