Rona Munro
Hampstead Theatre
Hampstead Theatre

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Douglas Henshall as James Melville, Brian Vernel as Thompson and Rona Morison as Agnes Credit: Manuel Harlan
Douglas Henshall as James Melville and Brian Vernel as Thompson Credit: Manuel Harlan
Douglas Henshall as James Melville and Rona Morison as Agnes Credit: Manuel Harlan

In 2014, Rona Munro gave us the awarenesses-winning trilogy The James Plays, beginning a sequence of plays about Scotland’s history through the reigns of the Stuarts that continues with James IV: Queen of the Fight, currently touring in a National Theatre of Scotland. James V is a play still to be written but Mary jumps forward to his daughter, perhaps the best known of these monarchs, queen when only days old and dead at 44, executed by the English.

Though the play is about her, we see the Queen only for two brief moments and this too is a James play for at its centre is James Melville, a courtier deviated to Mary since he first saw her, a nine-year-old girl in the French court.

While other Mary Stuart dramas usually concentrate on her relations with her cousin Elizabeth I of England and her execution, Munro chooses the period between the murder of her husband Darnley and her abdication. Mary begins when Melville is preparing to leave Holyrood with the Queen, though the Earl of Bothwell (another James, thought responsible for Darnley’s murder, though legally acquitted) and his supporters have other plans.

It continues two months later, after Mary’s marriage to Bothwell and the rebellion that led to her surrender and imprisonment.

Was Mary involved in the murder of Darnley? Melville argues her innocence, trying to get the (fictional) Thompson who is in change of the gate on his side while household servant Agnes, a passionately anti-catholic protestant, who calls Mary “a murderous long stripe o’ hook that kisses the Pope’s arse,” condemns her.

In the later scene it is Thompson, now moved up in the hierarchy, trying to get Melville to add his signature to those demanding that Mary abdicate while Agnes finds herself moved by the Queen’s plight.

This is play full of talk, the stroke of a pen its most important action onstage, but it is full of strong feeling, though the drama is cerebral. Douglas Henshall gives a beautifully controlled performance as James Melville, presenting a sincere and honest man eventually finding his own certainties undermined by the pragmatic political realities of Thompson’s argument. Brian Vernel as Thompson, whom we first see after he has been beaten up by Boswell, shows him as an uppity underling who has cannily learned how to play the court game but gives him his own kind of honesty.

Rona Morison’s fiery Agnes has a certainty that makes Thompson’s description of her street preaching believable but shows something different when she identifies with Mary as a woman and not just a Catholic in her graphic memory of her in torn-away clothing, breast-bared, screaming from a window. Concentrating on the argument perhaps makes emotional involvement less likely, but that image and the play’s final moments stay with me.

Against Ashley Martin-Davis’s setting of dark panelling that grows in scale as the play progress, the characters are dressed in no particular period, both long dresses and boots and modern shoes and trousers. Roxana Silbert’s production underlines that this is not just a period drama that counters a male view of history but a comment on gender politics that is very contemporary.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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