‘Glory on Earth’ (preview), Lyceum Theatre

“Don’t take it to extremes, John”.

Glory on Earth is “a meditative look” at a very unsettled and volatile time in Scottish and Unionist history, not least due to the Reformation. Consisting of only two characters – John Knox and Mary Queen of Scots, along with a six strong cast of her ladies-in-waiting/’Marys’ – the play centres around the historically hostile relationship between the two, based on Knox’s account in his work, “The History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland“.

Things are a little disjointed in the second preview. Verbal cues are missed, either with the actors cutting across each other or missing the odd cue to respond. While occasional, its enough to disrupt the rhythm to the already rich and heightened dialogue. There is also an attempted air of verfremdungseffekt at play, too; each character moves around the space as though puppets of someone else’s story and its emotions. The play’s aim may be that of the aforementioned “meditative look”, but in practice, the performances become woefully understated, making the rare outburst of emotion seem erratic and inauthentic.

Attention is instead focussed on the design and text. Minimalist in style, arches are lowered in and out of scene to signify the court and external settings, and the actors wheel Mary’s throne and John’s pew around with deliberate and foreboding menace. The ladies’ costuming – an abstract modernisation with nods to the 16th century – has since had a divisive response from audience members. On a personal level, the bigger question is that of incorporating heels (more specifically ankle boots) into the show. The click of a heel on a stage is a pleasant sound on the ear, however, my question focusses on the why. Heels hold a special significance in modern society than it did in the 16th century. Then, it was to add height to the (predominately short) noble men; now, they are a distinctly feminine symbol, though not always one of positivity.

Historically, this is not an inaccurate play. It does, however, gloss over the fundamental significance of this particular time and, in turn, undermine it almost to a point of offence. (Take one scene revolving around continuous rejections of marriage proposals, before skipping ahead to her imprisonment, abdication, and beheading, conveniently ignoring three marriages and the birth of her son). John Knox was a ruthless individual, to Mary and to Scotland. Mary’s court and, ultimately, life was riddled with tragedy, sabotage and betrayal. Instead, Knox is portrayed as nothing more than a humble servant carrying out God’s work, and not organising treasonous activities and burning people at the stake. Or Mary, ascending the throne at six days old and raised upon the royal courts of France, depicted as ignorant, overwhelmed, and incapable of rule.

Mary’s story has had many iterations over history. Like many historical plays, then, there must be a reason to hear it once more. Instead, one leaves the evening wondering about the show’s purpose. It presented no new insight: Knox is still a bad man, and Mary stills dies at the end. To portray Knox as this humble servant of the Lord and driven by His purpose is, in my opinion, the play’s undoing. While undoubtedly true, compounding it with a muted performance of the man and the erratic performance of Mary instead turns the play into a borderline sexist trope: the man with all the power, and the crazy queen who can’t rule her own country. Perhaps as the run continues and the performers’ intensity increases, this may be avoided altogether – Mary, at the very least, deserves that.

Glory on Earth, Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

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