Review: King Hamlin, Park Theatre - important issues are drowned out
Review: Richard The Second, Omnibus Theatre - accomplished and timely revival

Review: Mary, Hampstead Theatre - politics and patriarchy in this tight historical thriller

There's a line towards the end of Rona Munro's play, Mary, that changes your perspective of the central character, Lord Melville, played by Douglas Henshall.

Douglas Henshall (James Melville) and Brian Vernel (Thompson) in Mary at Hampstead Theatre_credit Manuel Harlan
Douglas Henshall (James Melville) and Brian Vernel (Thompson) in Mary at Hampstead Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Set during the turbulent reign of Mary Queen of Scotts, Melville is her most loyal advisor. But, with a string of scandals and seemingly bad choices threatening her position, Melville is under increasing pressure to turn his back on the Queen. 

The play is a series of increasingly tense conversations between Melville, Thompson (Brian Vernel), who has risen rapidly up the ranks at court and Agnes (Rona Morison), a maid and vocal Protestant.

Thomspon and Agnes have little sympathy for the Queen and believe Scotland would be best served if she abdicated.

Can Melville win them around to his way of thinking and onto the side of the Queen, or will they convince him that putting the infant prince James on the thrown with a regent is the better path?

Queen Mary (Meg Watson) makes only two brief appearances and says very little, but her presence is a constant throughout as every decision, every look and smile is analysed and interpreted.

Simply staged with a wood-panelled backdrop, two chairs and later a desk, the focus is firmly on a debate about the Queen's suitability to rule.

The physical absence of Mary felt slightly odd at first but serves to emphasise her lack of agency and her vulnerability as a woman in a man's world. As different interpretations of her action or inaction are presented, it emphasises the double standards. 

In the play, people gossip and protest, even shouting insults at the Queen as she rides through the city, the 16th Century equivalent of putting your opinion in a Tweet.  

The drama and tension build, leading to a heated exchange of opinions about a pivotal event. It involves former favourite and suspected murderer Bothwell, his treatment of the Queen and whether she is a willing participant or victim. Could Melville have done more to protect the Queen?

There is a reminder that Mary is a human, and that line which throws a different light on Melville. 

The dialogue and performances are such that even though there are only three characters for the majority of the play, you can't help but feel a sense of the urgency and danger of the time. 

Not a word of what Munro has written is wasted.

I thought Mary was a gripping piece of theatre, not just about politics and religion but the power and prejudice of the patriarchy. The disadvantage she faces because of her sex is writ large throughout. And I'm going to give it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.

Mary, Hampstead Theatre

Written by Rona Munro

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Running time: 90 minutes without an interval

Booking until 26 November; for more details and to buy tickets, head to the Hampstead Theatre website.

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