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FringeReview Scotland 2013

Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off By Liz Lochhead

Scottish Youth Theatre

Genre: Drama

Venue: Tron Theatre, Glasgow,


Low Down

There are twa queens in one green isle; Mary and Elizabeth, cousins. Both unmarried and both related in blood but not in fortune. We see Mary’s slow demise into the depths of the English prison before being executed. Our finale is a grim reminder that whilst the likes of John Knox may well have been difficult to countenance back in the 17th Century our playgrounds may have his worthy successors as weans play Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped Off as a playground game with the new girl, newly arrived with a different accent and a different religion. 


I adore this play and believe it has quintessentially captured Scotland between its pages. We are taken through the tale by La Corbie or The Craw; a narrator with no agenda but a clear view of events. Mary sits in Scotland after 3 years and still not in charge of her country. Elizabeth sits alone in her throne in England as she is unable to shake off the thought of being condemned by her nobles over her choice of husband. Mary’s love life may not be scandalous to us now but lead partly to her downfall as she married twice, was pregnant once and all three were an affront to Elizabeth. When Mary sought refuge, Elizabeth granted her bed, board, imprisonment and a scaffold on which she was beheaded. Finally we are transported to now and a Scottish playground anywhere in the country as children tease an upright Christian boy, a young lad coming to the aid of the new French girl and then get the new girl to be Mary in their childhood game. The parallel and warning is not lost on us of the relevance of prejudice against any so called monstrous regiment.

That Liz Lochhead could be described as a national treasure is what she may deserve but I am sure would shy away from describing herself. Lochhead turns her attention to this period of history with a distinctive pen and style that refuses to allow it to fall into anti English sentiment nor introspective mush. There are clear and unequivocal insights whilst we see a story that sits within our cannon of experience but brings immense clarity to what we must learn from its telling. A play that is comfortable in its chosen form whilst celebrating the language of its country sitting in a structure that refuses to simply be a play; this is a bold choice for any youth theatre.

Any performance with such a large cast makes it difficult to pick out for praise or comment any actors because this ensemble performance refused to allow weakness within its cast. The only gripe that I had was when music was on some of the words – not always – were lost. Youth theatre gives you volume and Mary McCluskey uses it to fantastic effect. The Greek style chorus of La Corbie was always there to zip things along, aid with your understanding and just be a joy to watch. Their well observed movement extended beyond dance and at all times this was an ensemble well drilled and rehearsed. One other note was the language. A frequent bug bear of mine is watching youth theatre where the young people are mouthing words they simply don’t understand. With Scots you have the added worry that the language can sound dated and stilted if not embraced properly. There was never a hint of that here and the use of Scots with this company highlighted what a tremendous language it is.

I have to though highlight a couple of performances within the piece as they were top class. Both queens were absolutely fantastic. As Queen Elizabeth Katee McCulloch was the right side of spoilt whilst Leah Byrne as Queen Mary got it spot on. The role of Mary is a particularly difficult one as the mixture of a French accent spattered with Scots words can be very hard to master. It can lead to very strange sounds emanating from your mouth! Leah was absolutely on the money. Paul Dyer was someone I struggled to warm to until I remembered who he was playing – John Knox ya numpty. He was cold, heartless and meant to be hard to like! The rest of the cast were equals to these performances thus giving their colleagues the ability to shine.

Kenny Miller’s set was what Kenny Miller’s sets seem to always be – simply joyful. The fact that this young company have the opportunity to work on something created by such a well respected member of our artistic community is worthy of getting into the summer school alone. The staging with the two queens in front of two mirrors with lights round them reminded us of the theatricality of their reigns whilst giving a picture frame quality to the capture of the past. The staircases, entrances and exits through hatches at the back allowed the action to flow with the piano between that served as a bed as well as somewhere to sit your spare craws functional as well as integral.

Mary McCluskey’s direction is as assured as ever. This is a production with the pace well measured, the integration of some excellent dance and movement – particularly at the opening sequence – with a deftness of touch that respects the text whilst pushing it for more meaning.

Youth theatre has always been for me from where the future not only of the next generation of actors and creatives come but also where we get new sense of classic texts. Here it was shining through that these great actors had something new to say and to give to the text. This is a classic text studied in many Higher classes in Scottish schools. The reasons for that include how well it is performed. The last time that I saw this was in Cumbernauld Theatre when I was an Arts Council Assessor. Bizarrely I was in the audience with Liz Lochhead that night too! I took my daughter that night and Eilish was full of praise and talked about it all the way home. It spoke to her and this production spoke to me.

It therefore gave me a sense that Scottish Youth Theatre have the continued ability to not only challenge us a youth theatre should but also to prod our thoughts whenever they think we need prompting. I love the play but that does not always mean you will love the interpretation given by any cast. I loved the performances because of the vibrancy, the understanding, the direction taking in the abilities that the cast had in utilising them to such great effect. It is the response of an ensemble cast that makes this play work – pulling in the same direction seems to be how Scotland works hence my belief that the play captures quintessential Scottishness

If you have the chance, don’t waste it and get to see this. Whilst someone opined on the way in that SYT should be at the Edinburgh Festival I had to stop myself from turning and disagreeing. I get the sentiment but there is no reason why the East should have all the good drama…