Published in The Scotsman
When you hear the team from the National Theatre of Scotland talking about the days before the opening night of Black Watch in 2006, you get an impression of chaos and foreboding. Director John Tiffany, playwright Gregory Burke and the rest of the crew were half expecting a flop. Certainly, they had no inkling they were sitting on top of one of Scotland's greatest theatrical exports.
The same was true 20 years earlier when director Gerry Mulgrew, playwright Liz Lochhead and the performers of Communicado found themselves hurtling towards the first night of Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off on the Edinburgh Fringe of 1987. "We were working too hard to know – or even to think about it," says Lochhead today. "The actors must have been terrified, but the thing had a life of its own. It must have been like that, on a much bigger scale, with Black Watch. They were working so hard that they just didn't know."
The uncertainty was for similar reasons. In part, it was because they were too close to the material to have any sense of perspective. They couldn’t see the wood for the trees. And in part, it was because on the first day of rehearsals, as was the case with Black Watch, they didn't have anything they could confidently call a well-made play.
In fact, they didn't even have anything they could call a title. Until the day they had to get the posters done, they were calling it the Mary Queen Of Scots Show. "Gerry came in one day to rehearsals and said, 'I was at the designers and I just told them it was called Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off,'" says Lochhead. "He said, 'I couldn't help it.'"
Fortunately, she loved the title. In any case, she had other things to worry about. It wasn't that she was unprepared. She had been working on the play since Mulgrew suggested the idea nearly three years earlier. He had realised that 1987 would be the 400th anniversary of Mary's beheading and the two of them found if funny to imagine a play that would commemorate her death rather than her birth. Lochhead was excited by the project and did lots of historical research in the library. She even did a fair bit of writing. Indeed, she had many scenes ready to be performed. What she didn't have was a structure to put them in.
"Just as we were about to go into rehearsal I still didn't have a play," says the playwright and poet, who was made Scotland's makar at the start of this year. "I just had a completely incoherent mess. I remember I had to go and meet Gerry. It was the day after the election and Thatcher had got in again. I was actually going to accidentally on purpose get on the wrong train and run away from Gerry. I did go and meet him and I said, 'We don't have a play! I'm completely stuck!'"
Mulgrew suggested she should write it like a fairy story, beginning "once upon a time", an idea that unlocked her imagination. Somehow in the heat of rehearsals, the show started taking shape. A scene from the start moved to the end; a passage from the middle became the opening speech; Lochhead wrote into the night and Mulgrew cast his theatrical magic. Only when they showed it in public did they know what they had. Audiences and critics loved it, the Scotsman awarded it a Fringe First and one reviewer called it "full-bodied, subtle, humorous and virile".
"We were working so much right up to the wire that it was a surprise to me that it was this enormous success," says Lochhead, delighted to have seen subsequent productions at home and abroad, most recently by the National Theatre of Scotland and, now, at Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum in a co-production with Dundee Rep.
Directed by Tony Cownie, a long time Lochhead colleague, the play is not only a boisterous retelling of the story of Mary, the French Catholic queen, and Elizabeth, her Protestant English adversary, but also of the Scotland of today, a place where sectarian rivalry is alive and festering. Mulgrew, coming from a Catholic family, and Lochhead, from Protestant stock, realised they were looking at Mary's story from different cultural perspectives.
"It's about us now," says Lochhead, whose new play, Edwin Morgan's Dreams – and Other Nightmares, is part of this year's Glasgay! "It's about interesting things that happened in the past and how that past is alive today in Scotland. It deals with the roots of sectarian Scotland. The fact that we were at war with ourselves about this stuff – Gerry was at war with himself and I was at war with myself – made it very rich."
It'd be nice to say that, nearly 25 years later, such concerns are no longer with us, but as the Neil Lennon saga shows, we have yet to see the end of religion-based conflict. "I think it's got real resonance just now because of the sectarian debate in Scotland," she says. "We're largely a secular country, so sectarianism is not religious any more; it's got to be cultural and tribal. All these jokes – 'What kind of an atheist are you, a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?' – are coming from a real place."
Another part of the play's richness is the built-in theatricality created by a playwright knowing exactly the actors she was writing for. The original Communicado company included Frank McConnell, who is known primarily as a dancer, and Ann Wood, a fiddle player, as well as talented actors such as Myra McFadyen, Anne Lacey and Alison Peebles. The knowledge of this team of people and their various qualities is written into the fabric of the play. Even if Cownie chooses to go down a different stylistic route for the 2011 production, he won't be able to ignore the exuberance, direct address and in-your-face poetry that is part of the play's make up.
"It's a play of patterns," says Lochhead. "In the first scene that Mary has with Darnley, he's got measles and she's feeding him soup from a spoon. On the last night she's with him, he's got smallpox and she's feeding him from a spoon. That scene should mirror the one before and should visually be the same. It's not boring to do it the same, it's in the DNA of the play."
She is thinking also of the way Mary and Elizabeth occupy the stage. In real life, the two queens never met, although they were endlessly fascinated by each other. To have two lead characters who don't talk to each other is a problem that Lochhead solved by having them mirror each other, so they occupy the same theatrical space, even if it is not the same literal space. In an instant, Elizabeth becomes Bessie, who is Mary's maid, and just as quickly, Mary transforms into Marion, servant of Elizabeth.
"That still leaves directors an enormous amount of freedom," she says. "All theatre depends on the words, the actors and the audience. The director's job is to make them all come together."
Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 16 September–15 October; Dundee Rep, 19 October–5 November. Edwin Morgan's Dreams – and Other Nightmares, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 2–5 November.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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