Glory on Earth, written by Linda McLean and directed by David Greig, is a refreshingly unusual piece of historical theatre. It’s the story of Mary Queen of Scots (Rona Morison) and the four meetings she held with protestant reformer, John Knox (Jamie Sives), whilst she was in virtual captivity in Holyrood Palace. To Knox, Mary was an abomination – a staunch Catholic with a genuine claim to the throne of Scotland, a country that had so recently been swept ‘pure’ by the Calvinist reformation.
Karen Tenant’s stage design eschews any conventional attempt at historical accuracy. Mary and her six female attendants (who, frustratingly for any would-be reviewer, are all called ‘Mary’ and each take on several other roles throughout the play) are dressed stylistically, in a mixture of old and new – lace ruffs and painted boots. The sets feature key elements that simply hint at architectural detail – stone arches drift silently down from above; a wooden pulpit resembling a scaffold trundles in from the wings. Moreover, the sound design utilises a mash-up of contemporary music from The Jesus & Mary Chain to the torch songs of Edith Piaf (the latter alluding to Mary’s previous role as Queen Consort of France). To add to the mix, the actors also sing some enchanting reformation psalms and occasionally even play musical instruments.
If I’m making this sound like a bit of a hodge-podge, I certainly don’t mean to. The central tenet of the tale – the clash between two styles of religion – is eloquently told. Jamie Sives’s Knox is a dour and intimidating presence, his grim expression guaranteed to take the fizz off anybody’s pint in an instant, while Morison’s Mary displays all the impatience and affectation of an eighteen year old woman caught in an impossible situation, desperately seeking a husband and trying in vain to kindle some kind of a friendship with her father’s cousin, Elizabeth. Of course, we all know where Mary’s journey ends and, as she progresses steadily towards her inevitable doom, it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for her plight.
A deceptively powerful piece, this, and one that delights in pointing out that, centuries after these events, there still exists the same constant wrangling between Catholic Europe and Protestant Britain. Those with an interest in the history of Scotland will definitely want to catch this, but there’s something here that will resonate with a wider audience than that. This is a tale about humanity, about belief, and about the impact we have on others. And it doesn’t get much more universal than that.