GLORY ON EARTH
ROYAL LYCEUM, EDINBURGH
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Linda McLean’s Glory on Earth, which is receiving its world premiere at the Royal Lyceum, revisits the nation-altering conflict between Mary Stuart, Scotland’s Roman Catholic monarch, and John Knox, the custodian of the Calvinist Reformation. From the very outset one senses that its director, David Greig, has set out to defy the great significance of its subject.
Even before curtain up, Jamie Sives’s grim, statuesque Knox stands front stage scowling at the arriving audience while French popular songs (including Charles Trenet’s evergreen La Mer) play incongruously in the background. This strikes a frivolous, somewhat gimmicky tone which afflicts the production throughout its often troubled two hours.
Rona Morison’s brittle (and, finally, disappointingly adolescent) Mary Stuart is surrounded, not by the famous “Four Marys” who were the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, but by a chorus of six attendants who share her name; and who also play all of the other characters, male and female. It is an audacious choice, but one which asks too much of the young sextet, who struggle under the historical weight of the play.
This lack of gravitas is compounded by a general sense of uncertainty (or, perhaps, insufficient rehearsal) among the cast on opening night. More deleterious still is composer Michael John McCarthy’s drearily postmodern clashing of Scottish rock band The Jesus and Mary Chain (arranged for violin and harp) with the singing of the psalms by the devout Protestants of the Reformation.
The pity of all this is that one can see a better play, and a better production, lurking under the surface of Greig’s offering. McLean’s language is often elevated, rich and crisp; even if Knox’s impressive (if predictably austere) 16th-century vernacular grates against Mary’s irritating descent into simplistic, 21st-century speech. At one point, she asks the misogynistically dismissive Reformer, “Do you think I’m a bad person?”
Karen Tennent’s designs are as frustratingly inconsistent as the production itself. The costumes are a crude collision of period and modern dress. The minimalist sets, by contrast, are beautifully evocative, not least when great arches are flown in to create the interior of a church.
A couple of jokes regarding Scotland’s relations with both England and Europe nod towards recent political events. Ultimately, however, this production lacks the grandeur and dramatic tension demanded by the history it portrays.
Until June 10. lyceum.org.uk
This review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 24, 2017
© Mark Brown