Theatre review: Glory on Earth/War in America

I fear your fear more than I fear my own, says Rona Morrison's glowing, brilliant young Mary Queen of Scots to John Knox, in one of their exhausting confrontations; and it's a phrase that echoes ominously down the ages, in a week when we have been reminded again how much beautiful, powerful young dancing women have to fear from religious zealots, whose terror of them and their freedom overrides all pity or compassion.

Rona Morrison as Mary Queen of Scots, in a story which reminds us that powerful women were always at risk from religious zealots
Rona Morrison as Mary Queen of Scots, in a story which reminds us that powerful women were always at risk from religious zealots

Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh ****

Old Royal High School, Edinburgh ****

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In Linda McLean’s strange and powerful stage poem Glory on Earth, Mary Queen Of Scots sails into Leith to take her place as Queen, in 1561, along with a team of six beautiful Maries who surround her like a dancing, quick-witted girl-group, glowing with young female energy.

They have grown up in France, and are full of style and song and sensuality; and their arrival is, of course, a red rag to the bully-pulpit preacher of Scotland’s raw and recent Presbyterian revolution, John Knox.

In contrast to Liz Lochhead’s great political cabaret Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, 30 years ago, McLean’s play does not tangle much with the wider politics of the Reformation; it focuses, in a fine poetry sometimes uncomfortably alternating with historical explanation, on the crushing weight of male disapproval, lust and hatred that finally destroyed Mary, ending her reign after only six troubled years.

What it achieves, though – in David Greig’s production and Karen Tennant’s design, lit by Simon Wilkinson – is a breathtakingly beautiful stage pageant in black, white and richly-coloured light, whose style effortlessly bridges the centuries between then and now; as does Michael John McCarthy’s sound design, full of laid-back French chanson from Edith Piaf to the disco moves of Christine And The Queens.

The message is about the timeless struggle for life, love, joy and young female energy, in a world that too often crushes them all; and it could hardly be presented with more beauty, resonance or passion.

Jo Clifford’s War In America – playing at the Old Royal High School in a fine production by Susan Worsfold – is the second production from the new young Attic Collective at the King’s Theatre, and another play full of historical resonances.

An apocalyptic vision of our time written in 1996, but quite astoundingly prescient in its vision of a decaying Europe which is sliding into chaos, while across the Atlantic, America is riven by a catastrophic war between liberalism and religious conservatism.

Europe’s new Prime Minister, superbly played by Saskia Ashdown, is a woman who once hoped to do good in politics, but now feels defeated by the corruption of the system; and around her swirls a series of brilliant, perfectly-focused performances by young Attic actors, reflecting all the morbid symptoms of civilisation in profound crisis. Europe’s dying parliament house, The Palace of Reason, is perfectly impersonated by the Old Royal High, Scotland’s lost parliamentary chamber since 1979, now threatened with redevelopment as a six-star hotel; and if the run of this show is brief, it still deserves the widest of audiences, and a memorable roar of applause.


*Glory on Earth until 10 June; War In America, final performances today.