Liz Lochhead’s play, written in 1987, remains a vibrant account of Scots myth and history, a work ‘dipped in the nation’s psyche’. Director Tony Cownie has planted his production firmly in a modern Scotland where ideas of national identity are shifting; it’s a boisterous, engaging production which addresses the question of identity for a contemporary Scottish audience while maintaining links to the country’s past.
The play concerns the relationship and rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, the cousin and adversary whom she has never met. Religious superstition and fear of the foreign play a large part in this, for while Mary was Catholic, Elizabeth was Protestant and both regarded the other as a threat.
Cownie’s revival is fast-paced yet scaled down, creating a rare sense of intimacy in a space that often doesn’t allow for much sense of connection. The small ensemble cast hop nimbly from role to role, with the queens doubling up as each other’s maids. The emphasis here is not on historical spectacle but personal relationships and the connection of the Scottish people to their past. Narration is provided by Corbie, a chorus figure impeccably played by Ann Louise Ross. Scottish cliché and stereotypes are deftly avoided and Scottish/English rivalry is dealt with sensitively, the play avoiding anti English dogma. Neil Murray’s inspired set is a patchwork of the contemporary and the historic, peppered with vandalised statues, urban clutter and phone boxes, while the lighting reflects the patterns of the Scottish seasons.
From a strong cast, Emily Winter’s Queen Elizabeth has a slight edge over Shauna McDonald’s Mary – the latter’s fusion of French and Scottish accents sometimes eclipse Lochhead’s linguistic playfulness and eventually becomes a bit wearing. Winter’s plays the English queen as a witty, charismatic woman, decked out in a gold boob tube and matching detachable tutu, her costume a striking contrast with Mary’s drab dress. While Elizabeth is vivacious, Mary is shy, given to emotionally charged outbursts and something of a victim.
The play is insightful about the way in which the past is alive in Scotland. Over twenty years on and it’s still a vital piece of theatre, particularly for those of Scottish heritage. History here is not just a dusty list of dates and names or a sequence of distinct events, but part of a chain, a continuum, a living link between the past and the present. The result is a joyful piece of writing, told on its own terms, with its roots in the country’s turbulent past but exploring questions of identity that remain relevant today.