‘Delicately balanced humour and solemnity’ ‒ Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off

The EUTC bring the sixteenth century to life with ardor on the stage at Bedlam in their production of Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. Fiercely energetic and impressively immersive, this play retrieves the story of Mary Queen of Scots and her cousin, Elizabeth I, illuminating one of the most notorious power struggles in history. 

The first act is characterised by the easy laughter and pure fun, with comedy that combines elements of slapstick and light-hearted humour with a clever and refined wit. Kirsten Millar’s Corbie, the omnipresent narrator, dominates the stage, commandeering Lochhead’s script in an impressive and authentic display of Scots. She holds the audience in the palm of her hand until the very end. 

The play intertwines politics, love, religion, family and betrayal into a neat but forceful exploration of England and Scotland and the divisive politics that once (and arguably still do) define their relationship. In this re-telling of Britain’s volatile past, the political becomes intensely personal as the audience bears witness to the construction and shattering of relationships. The presence of betrayal casts a dark shadow across the play that refuses to be ignored. Each actor visibly carries this weight upon their performance with an unwavering sense of urgency. 

Eilidh Northridge and Megan Lambie’s opposing forces as Mary and Elizabeth complement each other perfectly. They manage to seamlessly slip from their roles as Queens into the other’s maidservant, achieving a smooth fluidity in a task that could easily have created a fragmented performance. Northridge accomplishes a perfect equilibrium between elegance and force in her performance as Mary, managing to create a character that is both familiar and formidable.

“Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off, Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off”. The childhood rhyme transforms into a menacing chant, lead by Harrison Macneil’s vitriolic stage presence in his portrayal of reformer John Knox. In both voice and movement he holds a vehement dominance on stage, bringing an intense palpability to the hatred portrayed by his character. His words are left to echo throughout the play’s entirety, contributing to the darker element that is always just beneath the surface of the light hearted humour and fun. 

The second hour is shrouded in a darker, more sinister shadow of the play’s inevitable ending. This is visible in both the actors themselves as well as the sophisticated use of lighting that darkens the stage in parallel with the crumbling structures of trust and peace in Britain. The scene of beheading lets itself down slightly in its anti-climactic nature; under the darkness of the stage lights one almost misses it. However, the image of the blood being clinically scrubbed from the stage achieves the darkly violent effect expected from this scene. 

Delicately balanced humour and solemnity combine to form a fascinating and compelling piece of theatre in Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. It is a play about division that continually oscillates between antitheses, setting up a uniquely versatile drama that strikes sharply and leaves an indelible mark on the audience. 

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