Mary, a new play by Rona Munro, refers to the Queen of Scots and it has nothing to do with her execution by Queen Elizabeth I many years later. Munro has found a niche, writing plays about Scottish history and Mary is a superb thriller that takes place in April and June of 1567. There are only three characters and the Queen is not one of them. In fact, she appears only briefly and it is in the imagination of Sir James Melville, the main character in the play.
Melville (Douglas Henshall) is a powerful lord, a confident man and a loyal supporter of the Queen. He confronts Thompson (Brian Vernel) a young servant of the court and Agnes (Rona Morison) a servant of the royal household in Holyrood Palace, Scotland.
Thompson has been bloodied and knocked senseless by Lord Bothwell, an ambitious and brutal man. We hear much about him and he is the absent villain of the play. The question in the first act is if Mary should be removed from Holyrood to Stirling Dunbar Castle. Melville argues forcefully in favour of Thompson opening the gates for her to be taken to Dunbar. Thompson, on orders from Bothwell, hesitates but eventually informs Bothwell of his intention to take Mary to Dunbar.
The next scene takes place in June of 1567. Mary was abducted by Bothwell and taken to Dunbar and what he did to her there becomes of crucial importance. In any event, they were married in May 1567. There are some problems and questions about Bothwell. Did he or did he not murder Mary’s husband Lord Darnley, the father of the future James VI of Scotland and James I of England? And more more importantly, did he rape Mary after abducting her? Was it a consensual act that the lustful Mary enjoyed?
In the June confrontation, Thompson has risen in rank and has become confident and even aggressive. Agnes, a fearless woman who does not hesitate to express her opinions and a resolute Protestant and despiser of the Catholic Church, thinks that Mary was raped but she wants the Protestant James VI to become king. (He is the one who becomes King James I of England after the death of Elizabeth I.) In the end Agnes does becoming sympathetic to Mary.
Many of the Scottish nobility want Mary to abdicate because she is unfit to be the queen and she is a Catholic. Melville argues vehemently against her abdication and refuses to sign the letter demanding that she abdicate. Thompson confronts Melville and conducts what amounts to a meticulous and brilliant cross-examination that leads to Melville having to admit that he may be wrong about the rape and Mary’s subsequent conduct and agrees to her abdication.
It is a thrilling play that takes an unusual approach to the famous queen. Thompson and Agnes are fictitious characters but Manville is a historical figure. The three of them take us through cogent arguments that rest on loyalty to Mary and love of Scotland. We are never sure what side we support as the arguments seesaw between Melville’s principled loyalty and support of the Queen and Thompson’s arguments debunking her as inept as a queen and as a bringer of peace. The “rape” scene in done in a room full of men who are yelling as if they are watching a sports event. It is a horrific image and the quotation marks may suggest what Thompson and Agnes believe which is that Mary willingly gave in to Bothwell and in any event her marriage to him suggests that she did not despise him.
Henshall gives a superb performance as a man of principal, ability and above all loyalty. Thompson starts as a lowly, beaten-up servant but he gains greater authority and becomes a powerful but subtle persuader. A marvelous performance by Vernel.
Rona Morison as Agnes is attractive and fearless as she stands her ground against men in an era when she would have been dismissed as unworthy of attention. She digs her heels in, does not hesitate to use foul language and does not budge. Kudos to Morison for a terrific performance.
Mary, as I said, does appear at the end of the play and she says a few words. Mary is played Meg Watson who graduated from acting school in June 2022. The role is her professional stage debut and one wishes that Munro had given her a few more lines. We could have done without the dozen women yelling at the end of the play.
Director Roxana Silbert does excellent work in pacing a play with numerous tough arguments and keeping us riveted for its 90-minute duration.
Mary by Rona Munro continues until November 26, 2022, at the Hampstead Theatre, Eton Avenue, Swiss Cottage, London, NW3 3EU. https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/