Linda Wilkinson
Women in Theatre and Evcol Entertainment
Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Bloodline production photo

You have probably heard of Bess of Hardwick, who built Hardwick Hall, a Tudor woman from a humble background who married a succession of wealthy husbands to become one of the wealthiest women in England, but did you know that her last husband George Talbot, the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury was the gaoler of Mary Queen of Scots? Not long after Bess and Shrewsbury were married Queen Elizabeth appointed him the keeper of the Scottish queen who was then in effect under house arrest in a succession of Bess's homes for nearly twenty years.

Bloodline is an intimate picture of the relationship between Bess and George Talbot and Mary Stuart and the effect the task Elizabeth put upon them had on the Talbot's marriage. It is a domestic drama, not an historical pageant about the great public events of those momentous times. They are far from London and the English court, though both have in the past been part of it and letters and visitors bring news of it and George himself is at times called to London An ageing Robert Dudley (Richard Warrick), once the lover of Elizabeth, whom great Gloriana once thought of marrying off to Mary, is the only representative of the world of politics we get to meet but intrigue is always in the air and the shadow of another character is always present: Elizabeth herself, and, lest she be forgotten, designer David Shields has her signature bold across the set and on the floor while the letters which carry intrigues and orders lie scattered around the periphery of the playing space.

Candles flickering at the rear of the set and the costume give a sense of period. Simon James Collier's production keeps things simple, placing the emphasis entirely on the actors. The ladies have gorgeous dresses, a beautiful pearl embroidered pink for Mary and brocaded black for Bess. It is unlikely that a fringe production budget could have run to different frocks to mark the passing of the years and this proves an advantage for there are no hold ups for costume changes or for moving furniture. The same desk and stools and chairs stay throughout and this means the action can be kept flowing swiftly with Renell Shaw's music and Matt Hall's sound effects marking the changes and helping build atmosphere, along with Ciaran Cunningham's warm lighting.

Probably everyone in the audience is aware that Mary had her head chopped off at Fotheringay in 1587 and that end is this play's beginning, with Talbot, who has had to be there for the execution, reporting the event to Bess. The couple are estranged and an aged and ailing Talbot obviously has a mistress, but this is an epilogue that is placed as prologue, for the script then goes right back to when Talbot became the Scots' Queen's keeper. Cleverly drawing on surviving letters, the writing or reading of which are incorporated into the action without any artificiality, we are given a picture of the changing pattern of relationships between the three main characters, the awkward balance between deference and friendship, watchfulness and trust, innocence and connivance as Talbot is forced to support the lifestyle Mary demands out of his own pocket, the £20 a week that Queen Elizabeth provides a pittance compared to the £10,000 a year he finds it costs him. We see a loving relationship disintegrate, a woman using her beauty and charm to play her own political game, despite her protestations. This is no self-conscious history lesson; only one short piece of narrative given to Bess has the whiff of the classroom, but you get all the information you need to follow the story.

Alistair Scott makes Talbot a gentle sort of fellow. It is difficult to imagine him involved in political manoeuvring and indeed his main preoccupation seems to be to avoid putting a foot wrong but in the early scenes he lacks a little of the passion that perhaps you might expect from someone only recently married, for even as a sick and elderly man the script suggests he's sexually pretty active.

Jane Murphy has just the right mixture of coquettishness and stately attraction, a royal who shares confidences but can suddenly remind you of her station, capable of bewitching both George and Bess. Writer Linda Wilkinson suggests she liked her bit of rough but gives no indication about what she did about that during her long captivity. She doesn't attempt an accent to suggest her life in France and Scotland but her slight Irish intonations help mark her as a stranger to English life.

As Bess, Louise Dumayne gives us both the careful independent woman protecting her property and her children's birthright (her marriage arrangements ensured that her property did not all automatically become part of her husband's estate) and a warm and caring person. These actresses are well matched.

Even with an interval Bloodline is not a long play and it makes you want to know more about these relationships. If Mary demanded luxuries and servants why was Bess emptying her close stool? Because it was a badge of her position to do that for royalty or because they couldn't trust servants getting too close to their prisoner, as indeed her grandson's tutor did? Given the precariousness of their situations if Elizabeth saw herself being put at risk, there is too little attention given to the tension in this household which helped tear Bess's last marriage apart but the production does an excellent job in building a natural atmosphere for those scenes of domestic relaxation, as when the women are doing their needlework.

At Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 4th December 2010

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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