Content Guidance: Rape, Sexual Assualt.

‘She was raped. And likely mair than once. And that has to be talked about before this new nation can be whole… Can be clean.’

Credit: Manuel Harlan

So posits the thoroughly researched and highly ambitious new instalment of Rona Munro’s six-part James Plays Cycle. It’s also her sixth play at the Hampstead: a two-part, sort-of pressure cooker ‘thriller’ that explores the deposition of Mary Stuart through three characters bearing witness to her fall. James Melville (Douglas Henshall), a Scottish government officer, is the real protagonist here, set against two servants — the firm-willed, Protestant Agnes (Rona Morison), and the passionate upstart Thompson (Brian Vernel) — who together voice the complexities and conflicts inherent in serving a queen who stands for a set of (Catholic) values that the people cannot abide. 

It’s an unexpected take on one of the many vicious and bloody episodes of British history, and the perspective is both timely and original, honing in on Mary’s vulnerability to the sexual violence of an angry country. But as much as the story sits firmly within the historical events taking place in Holyrood, there is something missing here that lets the drama fall flat. The circumstances of the action – a rebellious people and the queen’s involvement with the volatile and manipulative Bothwell – take us into a still, wood-panelled corner, where the three principal characters push and pull against each other to try and protect Mary from the instability that threatens to rip through the palace. They’re divided by status and faith, and ideological differences provide many opportunities to elaborate the strands of political thought running through the country. But through the thick dialect and intricate off-stage plotting, the goals and hearts of these characters slipped almost completely through my fingers. This is no fault of the performances, which are clear, convicted, and full of the characters’ earnest views. It’s more that they flounder and sink in a script that is so caught up in ideas and facts that it is hard to get under the skin of and really feel anything. It’s a challenge to create strong, believable relationships between characters who have really only just met, and I was never fully sure what was holding them in the space together. It all felt a bit artificial and as a result, somewhat inert.

Credit: Manuel Harlan

This is a shame in a piece that obviously has a lot to say, and I can feel the work and skill in the writing. It’s just all very heady, and the story being told felt far less interesting than what’s going on behind the wall — though even this I struggled to get a strong sense of. Somehow the world they’re in never fully comes to life, and I was left wondering if a narrative this immersed in historical detail would perhaps be better told via a less time-bound medium.

Strangely for a show about the untold story of the violence committed against one of Scotland’s most famous women, her voice is distinctly lacking. A glimpse at the end presents her asking Melville for help, but the remainder of the piece hones in on the people around her, who try to understand themselves in relation to her situation. It certainly taps into the confusion of a country struggling with its identity, and the historical complexities of women’s narratives being written out of history, but I wanted so much more of Mary in this play, and with such potential in the well-grasped history, I was disappointed that this is the version of the story we have ended up with. Even the flooding of the stage with angry women at the end felt somehow detached and unjustified after such a lack of emotional engagement.

Credit: Manuel Harlan

It may be that this script could sing in a different setting and with different direction. Roxana Silbert’s stagecraft is minimal, light, and somewhat constrained at first by the narrowness of the corridor. But the performances, tech, and lighting are very polished, much like the wood of the large wall that frames the action. In fact, here I can praise its cleverly concealed doors, and the smoothness with which it opened up for the second act. Perhaps if it hadn’t hidden from view the potential for a more involving drama, we could have been let into something much more powerful.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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