First published in The Times, Thursday May 25 2017
John Knox (Jamie Sives) stands at the front of the stage, watching the audience file into the auditorium. Clad in black, with Bible in hand, he is utterly immobile save for his eyes, which roam the stalls, picking out individual audience members and holding them with an unyielding gaze.
It is a discomforting start to Linda McLean’s new play about the 16th century Scottish Reformer – who was credited with founding the Presbyterian Church – and his various exchanges with that other great icon of the period, Mary, Queen of Scots. The feeling of unease provoked by this opening gambit will be familiar to anyone who has passed under the stare of the statue of Knox that is at the entrance of the Assembly Hall on the Mound in Edinburgh – ironically now a major venue every August during the Festival Fringe.
Mary’s turbulent sovereignty has of course been a frequent subject for drama, notably in Schiller’s Mary Stuart and in Liz Lochhead’s oft-revived Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. McLean’s play, commissioned by David Greig, the Lyceum’s artistic director, focuses on the early part of her reign following her upbringing at the French court, and was inspired in part by Knox’s own, deeply subjective accounts of their interviews.
Pic: Drew Farrell
The play is structured around this handful of increasingly fraught meetings. The clash between the 18-year-old queen (a striking performance by Rona Morison), whose instinct is to attempt a reconciliation between her own Catholic faith and the Protestant Reformation, and Knox, who rails against idolatry, is obviously rooted in a particularly choppy period in the nation’s history. Yet McLean’s witty, playful script also draws parallels with contemporary tensions in Scottish society, whether religious or political, and the desire for progress versus an implacable opposition to social change.
Pic: Drew Farrell
There is plenty to enjoy in Greig’s spare, stylish production. A six-strong chorus, doubling as Mary’s attendants and her duplicitous advisory council, passes wry comment on the main action. The two-hour production is visually always compelling, with Karen Tennent’s stark staging brought to life by Simon Wilkinson’s evocative lighting design.
For all its elegance, however, this string of encounters between two important Scottish icons proves fundamentally undramatic. Save for one short scene in which McLean depicts Sives’s Knox yearning for his late wife, the theologian remains an unknowable, almost superhuman figure, with all of our sympathies stacked heavily in favour of the more pragmatic Mary. It is a production of well-realised moments and rather less satisfying in its overarching action.