Glory on Earth marks the end of David Grieg’s first season as Artistic Director of the Lyceum – and what an absolute blast it’s been. Glory on Earth itself feels like the culmination of a cohesive vision, telling the story of Mary Queen of Scots’ first few years in Scotland as Queen, with particular attention to her religious wranglings with local purveyor of brimstone John Knox. On the one hand, the subject matter is reminiscent of the very classic, familiar stories that have been wafting around of late in the form of The Winter’s Tale and Hay Fever. (Throw a stone in Edinburgh Old Town and you’ll hit something with a Mary Queen of Scots’ connection.) On the other hand, Linda McLean’s new play has as new a feel as anything else premiered at the Lyceum this year (I’ve particularly enjoyed A Number and the gorgeous Picnic at Hanging Rock). That blend of old and new is very much one of the points of Glory on Earth. And its approach is really interesting.
Seven-eighths of the cast are credited as playing “Mary”. Rona Morrison plays the Queen of Scots herself, with sharp wit and an expressive emotional range – all the more so since the majority of the events here take place before Mary’s twenty-first birthday. Morrison in full flow is a sight to behold, mixing Mary’s naivete with her native intelligence and burgeoning self-awareness. She is surrounded by six other Marys – sometimes her friends (reminiscent of the original “four Marys”), sometimes her enemies, sometimes musical accompaniment, and sometimes manifestations of inside the queen’s own head.
The remaining cast member is, of course, John Knox – played with force and gravitas by Jamie Sives. And oh dear, poor old John doesn’t get a lot of love here as a character, from his long po-faced speeches to his black puritan-esque dress code. With so much effort put in to making the queen seem both sympathetic and distinctly modern (complete with jumpsuit, embroidered boots and thoroughly up-to-date dance moves), it’s clear whose side we as an audience are supposed to be on. Knox himself, brilliant orator as he was renowned to be, seemed to deserve a better chance to explain himself.
Karen Tennent’s design seems equally polarised: the contemporary elements of set and costume appear to have more care – or perhaps it’s just more enthusiasm – attached to them than the sixteenth-century elements. That plays out in Grieg’s direction, as well. When Glory on Earth gets good, it’s very good. But at moments it seems like the new, the youthful and the ostentatious equal good, and the stuffy, and the old, equal bad. Perhaps it’s a lack of nuance, or perhaps my soft spot for belligerent humourless Presbyterians is showing.
Photo courtesy of Drew Farrell.
Glory on Earth runs at the Lyceum until 10th June.