Mermaid Theatre, London EC4
Opened 23 October, 1995

Vanessa Ford's theatrical production company has in recent years been most visible in the field of "family" plays: adaptations of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, seasonal presentations of A Christmas Carol and Treasure Island (which returns as the Mermaid's Christmas show this year). Roy Marsden's production of Robert Bolt's second Tudor history play seems to be imbued with a similar ethos it is very pretty, played in full period rig against Poppy Mitchell's huge sliding tapestry backdrops, but it takes too many easy options.

This is not attributable to Bolt, although his script does contain the occasional clinker such as "You think life is a game and you're the only one allowed to cheat." Marsden, although he choreographs the play's intercutting well, works from a directorial palette containing few but primary colours. In the opening scene, Barbara Flynn as Mary Stuart and Philip Grout as her secretary are corralled into a display of irksomely over-enunciated verse-speaking, with the result that when their dialogue speeds up one is battered by a hailstorm of discrete syllables.

Raymond Platt is called upon to play David Rizzio as a pantomime Eyetie, and David Banks doubles as a similarly cartoonish Spanish ambassador to the English court and a Lord Bothwell so hearty that he all but slaps his thigh on every other line. Sean Scanlan, however, gets away with portraying John Knox as the kind of man Ian Paisley would have called a dangerous extremist and whose volume control goes no lower than 11.

The effect is to diffuse the dynamic at the core of the play, between Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth of England. The contention of these two women who never met, the differences and equally telling correspondences in their approaches to polity and their personal lives, has fascinated dramatists from Schiller onwards. Here, the balance in performance is tilted permanently towards the English camp. Elizabeth's counsellors Cecil and Walsingham (Barry Stanton and Richard Heffer) do not overplay their super-subtle stratagems, and Janet McTeer adroitly keeps the character of Queen Bess on line through moments of comedy and crisis.

Paradoxically, the production grows more potent and satisfying in the second act precisely when its scope narrows. With Mary's imprisonment in Sheffield Castle, the drama becomes one primarily of psychology rather than action, and Flynn is allowed to regain control of her characterisation with impressive results. But, instead of salvaging the evening, it simply seems like a different play.

The Mermaid has been cruelly underused for several years, as each successive attempt to revivify it has foundered. Ford and Marsden will be doing a great service if they succeed in breathing new life into the Puddle Dock space, but I suspect they will need to offer more substantial fare than this to pull it off.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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