Glory On Earth,
Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh,
Until June 10
Reviewed by Mark Brown
Glory On Earth, which is receiving its world premiere at the Royal Lyceum, is a play with an impressive provenance. Its subjects, the battle for the religious soul of Scotland in the 16th century and the ultimate demise of Mary, Queen of Scots, have previously been dramatised by our former Makar, Liz Lochhead (in Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off) and the great German playwright Friedrich Schiller (in Mary Stuart). Linda McLean, author of the Lyceum play, is the award-winning writer of such dramatic works as Strangers, Babies and Riddance.
Staged by the Lyceum’s artistic director, the acclaimed playwright David Greig, the piece finds Jamie Sives’s glowering John Knox (forbidding spearhead of Scotland’s Protestant Reformation) surrounded by a cast of seven female actors. It is a suitably ironic position in which to place the man who famously entitled his polemic against female governance The First Blast Of The Trumpet Against The Monstrous Regiment Of Women.
The primary target of Knox’s treatise was Elizabeth I, who had recently been installed on the throne of England. However, its unambiguous misogyny was soon being applied to Mary Stuart (played here by Rona Morison), who returned to Scotland in 1561, at the age of 18, with the intention of becoming the Roman Catholic monarch of an increasingly Calvinist nation.
It is a history which, from the sectarian strife of modern Scotland to the constitutional debate in which we are currently engaged, did much to shape our nation and culture. Frustratingly, however, many of the production’s efforts to connect the events of the 16th-century with our own times seem glib and contrived.
Modern French song is employed liberally to refer to Mary Stuart’s Gallic upbringing. Composer Michael John McCarthy arranges rock tracks for classical instruments for no apparent reason. Mary Stuart and her six ladies-in-waiting (an expansion of the “Four Marys” who attended her in her French exile) show us “how they dance in France” with a pointless and cringe-inducing choreography.
Karen Tennant’s costume designs, a collision of 16th and 21st-century dress, are similarly hollow. The same cannot be said of her fine, minimal sets, however. A chopping block, a throne, the enormous arches of a church are variously wheeled and flown onto a stripped-back stage to tremendous visual effect (if only Greig didn’t feel the need to cloud the designs with smoke effects on such a regular basis).
The disappointing consequence of many of the director’s choices is that the piece rarely achieves the moral weight required by the history it depicts. It is, as English theatre critic Kenneth Tynan wrote in a very different context, frivolous, even when it is being serious.
The pity of this is that one can almost see the better production this could have been struggling to emerge. McLean’s script is often poetic, witty and robust, even if it makes too many concessions to its own sense of modernity (not least in Mary Stuart’s collapse into adolescent petulance).
Sives gives us a compelling Knox, Talibanesque in his ravings against the evils of dancing; even if his granite-like implacability is more archetype than character. Morison’s Queen is fragile in both characterisation and performance, but conveys the necessary sense of pride, trepidation and defiance.
The young, six-strong chorus (who narrate key events in the lives of the monarch and play all of the additional characters, both female and male) is a laudable innovation. However, often speaking as one, like the voice of the cautioning populace of a Greek tragedy, one can’t help but feel that they are a little overawed by the demands of both play and production.
This review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 28, 2017
© Mark Brown