By Lynn Malone
The Scottish Youth Theatre “proudly” presented Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off at the Tron Theatre – and rightly so – as part of their Summer Festival.
The young cast gave a performance which was so good it made Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, “proud to be Scottish”, she told Newsnet Scotland.
Now in its 37th year, THE SYT explores the theme of “Independence?” through this and Now’s The Hour, a devised piece inspired by the referendum, showing at the SYT’s Building in the Old Sheriff Court, in the Brian Cox Studio.
Makar Liz Lochhead’s iconic modern classic, first performed in 1987 at the Lyceum in Edinburgh, where it won a Scotsman First Fringe award, is designed by Kenny Miller and directed by Mary McCluskey, and they set the scene in a way that is both dynamic and creative. There is no getting away from it, this is a fight to the death and there can only be one winner. The Queens stand on separate dais amid a blacked out stage with intermittent flashing red lights signalling danger and sexual tension.
Leah Byrne’s portrayal of the doomed Queen Mary is mesmerising, strong yet gentle, emotional yet dignified. She portrays the character beautifully and her “Frenchified” Scots accent reminds us who she is. The Dauphin of France who has returned to rule Scotland. The pace and mixture of the language, the quick, zippy Scottish vernacular entwined with touches of French mirror Mary’s confusion. She is in a country she doesn’t know or understand and is an ill prepared opponent for her politicised cousin, Elizabeth Tudor.
Katee McCulloch’s portrayal of Elizabeth I of England is also exceptional. The polar opposite to Mary, her Queen is as cold as ice. Aloof yet spiteful she spews vitriol in a clipped English accent, scheming all the while.
It’s easy to forget that the cast are so young when their performances are so polished. Ms Hyslop echoes this, saying: “It was a wonderful performance, Scotland should be proud of our SYT. I’ve been to several performances but this is my favourite production to date.
“What was particularly strong was the story telling and the narrative – it was a great tribute to Liz Lochhead – really strong characters. As MSP for Linlithgow I thought, Scotland should be very proud”
“Once upon a time there were twa queens on the wan green island, and the wan green island was split intae twa kingdoms. But no equal kingdoms…” So the audience are guided through the narrative by the two Corbies, the omnipotent and cynical chorus who deliver their part of the narrative with more than a touch of irony.
The play sketches the tension and the differences in character between the two Queens and Ms Lochhead skilfully employs humour to ease that tension at times. She explores themes of religion, gender, political pragmatism and sexual tension as well as tension between Scotland and England.
Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped off suggests that national identity and beliefs need some interrogation which fits in nicely with the theme of “Independence?” and the idea of getting young people and the wider community engaged in the debate.
Photos by Douglas Robertson