Mary, Hampstead Theatre, 2022
Photo by Manuel HarlanRona Morison (Agnes) and Douglas Henshall (James Melville)
  • Theatre, Drama
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‘Mary’ review

3 out of 5 stars

Scottish diplomat James Melville is the focus of this understated installment of Rona Munro’s epic James Plays

Andrzej Lukowski

Time Out says

Eight years ago, Rona Munro’s epic trilogy ‘The James Plays’ exploded on to the National Theatre stage, three big, boisterous, furiously exciting dramas about the kings of Scotland that were unabashedly modelled on Shakespeare’s English history plays.

Directed by Hampstead boss Roxana Silbert, ‘Mary’ is a welcome continuation of the series, but a very different beast. For starters, it isn’t even the fourth James Play: that title goes to the National Theatre of Scotland’s currently running ‘James IV: Queen of the Fight’, which has a large cast and is helmed by original trilogy director Laurie Sansom. Apparently it isn’t even the fifth James play in terms of the intended order – that’s a play still to come. Instead it’s number six (with more due after!!), the title naturally referring to notable non-James Mary Queen of Scots. But she is, by design, barely a physical presence at all (though newcomer Meg Watson plays her as a walk-on in a couple of haunting interludes). The James in question is in fact James Melville: not a Scottish monarch, but a significant statesman, diplomat and ally of Mary’s. 

A chamber piece about political power and the deals men do in back rooms, it’s effectively a three-hander that comes in at under 90 minutes, and only really consists of two scenes, a far cry from the teeming casts and epic adventures of the other plays.

In the first scene, Douglas Henshall’s James meets wet-behind-the-ears young courtier Thompson (Brian Vernel). He’s wet under the nose, too, dripping blood after being punched by the volatile nobleman Bothwell (unseen, but a looming presence). With a mixture of arrogant swagger and impassioned pleading, James tries to win the young man over to the idea that Mary should be allowed out of Linlithgow Palace where she’s currently a semi-prisoner of Bothwell. Thompson and gobby servant Agnes (Rona Morison) are doubtful: they’re Protestants and deeply mistrustful of the Catholic Mary. Eventually, though, James’s devotion to the queen and explanation of how he abandoned a comfortable life in France to serve her – and by extension, Scotland – seems to win out.

In the second scene, set months later, James has come to Holyrood at the behest of the now vastly more influential Thompson, who wants him to sign a decree that would effectively strip Mary’s power entirely on grounds of her having unwisely married the unstable Bothwell. James is determined not to sign it at first, and accuses Bothwell of coercing and raping Mary. But gradually Thompson chips away at him, appealing to his ego, jealousy, desire for power and his genuine patriotic desire to do what’s best for Scotland until eventually he sells the absent Mary out.

Two things Munro’s writing, Henshall’s lead performance and Silbert’s production nail. The first is its brilliant depiction of political persuasion: in the first scene James almost overwhelms Thompson with his arguments, leaving him no choice but to let Mary out. In the second Thompson more subtly seduces James, twisting his protective feelings toward Mary into merciless realpolitik.

The other thing the play uncomfortably nails is its depiction of men deciding the fate of women. Mary is deliberately barely a presence, and to see James and Thompson ‘debate’ whether she was raped by Bothwell or not – it matters in terms of whether she retains the crown or not – is truly unsettling. It’s not like Henshall’s emotional James sells her away cheaply or without intense regret. But he lets himself be talked into it; he’s hardly coerced. It is his privilege to be able to abandon her.

‘Mary’ is a deft sketch of James Melville at two critical points in his life. Comparing the play to its predecessors isn’t especially fruitful, when Munro is virtually writing in a different genre, and certainly at vastly different scale. Still, I miss the blood-and-guts thrill, the kinetic sweep of the earlier works: Silbert’s production is static and talky, verrrrry heavy on the exposition. If Henshall turns in a delicate and nuanced performance, I felt the use of two made-up characters – Thompson and Agnes – to extract it from him felt a bit clunky. Agnes’s abrupt conversion from hating Mary to horror at her violation feels like a crude attempt to inject a voice of conscience. And a sudden, spectacular end scene feels a bit frittered away when it might have given the play a real shot in the arm if something of the like had happened earlier.

‘Mary’ is a fascinating continuation of ‘The James Plays’. But ultimately it feels like an interesting bonus feature, a hushed, minor-key interlude in a very different cycle of dramas. 


£25-£39.50. Runs 1hr 30min
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