"Historical Horror hits Halloween Home-run"
by Cameron Dunham for remotegoat on 31/10/14

A journey to Network Theatre feels like strolling onto the set of a Halloween film. Tucked away in the labyrinthine catacombs underneath Waterloo Station, finding the venue is a mysterious affair and is the just the sort of hunting ground patrolled by Michael Myers. One feels relieved that the path is at least well lit!

As such, Network proves a suitably macabre host for James McKendrick’s excellent production of “Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped off”. This grisly tale of regal jealousy, set in the reign of Elizabeth I, captures the zeitgeist of Scottish independence today even more so than in the eighties, when Lochhead wrote it. Whilst this is only the second time that a run has been performed south of the border, with its current relevance, its popularity is likely to gather momentum.

There are no surprises in the narrative arc of this tale, the denouement is essentially given away in the play’s title, but the real fun lies in how we reach the inevitable conclusion. The cast present us with an array of larger than life characters, quite literally in the case of John Irvine’s towering and menacing Orangeman, Knox! John Soffe’s ambiguously misogynistic Bothwell is also imbued with a palpable sense of violence but it is Lauren Edward’s Elizabeth who comes away with the prize for Machiavel in chief: the complexity of this vain and tragic character is rendered subtly loathsome in something of a star turn.

Despite this plethora of villains, the audience reserved most of their hatred for Nick Satafford’s pathetic Darnley. This weak-willed, alcoholic turncoat proved a worthy focal point for our contempt and Stafford’s boyish looks add to the pampered presentation of this spineless whelp! Apparently Stafford was really quite ill during this performance; it didn’t show, he was excellent.

This crowd of villains is equally matched by the Scottish Queen and her cohorts. L. J. Hickerton’s Mary is a presentation of other-worldly humility and wisdom; she has to die, she’s too good for this world! I also liked Gareth Kearns monastic Riccio, I couldn’t help but think he had walked straight out of the pages of a Dan Brown novel.

The chorus of the show is given far greater import than one usually expects in a tragedy. It comes in the form of Emily Carmichael’s “Corbie”, a representation of a crow, and with her nationalistic allegiance to Mary she presents as something of an unreliable narrator. Carmichael’s performance is spellbindingly physical and her goth-like presentation is very welcome at this time of year. Her regular interjections are, by turns, humorous, foreboding and aggressive. She also delivers some of the shows most evocative moments in her haunting songs

With such an able cast, McKendrick has sensibly kept the set minimalist but I liked the use of a blackboard and the regular chapter projections also helped to keep those of us struggling with the dialect up to speed on where we at, story-wise.

If you’re looking for something with a little clout this Halloween, as well as the usual thrills and spills, look no further than the arches at Waterloo; once you’ve braved the journey you’ll find a show that’s really worth losing your head over.

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