So, why direct a German play written over two hundred years ago? Why direct a play focussing on a period of history unfamiliar to many? And why direct a play about a Queen who is certainly not top in the list of everyone’s ‘Greatest Females of All Time’?
It is a risk, no doubt. It has been a while since we have done anything remotely historical at The Matchbox- in fact the last I recall, if indeed historical you can call it, was ‘The Duchess of Malfi’. And before that, well, ‘The Crucible’, I suppose, if that counts, and prior to that, ‘Disillusion’ in 2003 – nearly twelve years and thirty three plays ago. (I don’t include last year’s ‘The Government Inspector’ because, though it was in some ways period, it was certainly not historical.) Yes it’s a risk, at least as far as filling the hall goes; many audience members enjoy the safe and secure comedy of Ayckbourne or Rix and, though folk like to come out of the comfort zone every so often, it is usually safe in the knowledge that laughter will be provided, as the aforementioned ‘Inspector’ proved last year. This is a truth universally acknowledged in drama groups the length and breadth of the UK, with many relying solely on the assured audience that drawing room farces or genteel comedies bring. And that is no bad thing. But one of the key characteristics of The Matchbox is the opportunity it provides to go somewhere different. Yes, we will always put on popular, comedic plays and do them damned well, but every so often it does not hurt to offer something a little more challenging and take our audiences somewhere different.
That is not to say that these kind of plays are any less engaging. History is big business. You only need look at ‘Wolf Hall’ currently enjoying success on the BBC at the moment following a much lauded run with the RSC. Or, in a slightly more fantastical variant, the continued triumph of ‘Game of Thrones’, now approaching its fifth series and not looking set to stop any time now. Yes, it is history with dragons (and a fair few dungeons) but the intrigues, betrayals, deceit and statecraft is all heavily influenced by historic event, in particular The Wars of the Roses from fifteenth century England.
These two programmes are worth citing as they are the touchstones and reference points for my own approach to ‘Mary Stuart’. It is a play as full of drama, intrigue and treachery as any found in the above and the translation we are using brings a contemporary punchiness and edge that shakes off any dusty pretentions of early 19th century theatre. This is not a piece bogged down in dry florid language but one that zings along as readily as any contemporary drama or soap opera, and enthrals from beginning to end, in no small way through the performances given by its talented cast – biased as that may sound.
But, the thing with history is that its themes resonate as much today as they did in the late 1700s in Germany and as (historically) they did during the turbulent era of Elizabeth’s ‘Golden Age’. One need look no further than this article from yesterday’s Guardian to see this: http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/feb/22/wolf-hall-the-economic-lessons.
Pointed out to me by John Mackintosh at the end of yesterday’s rehearsal (and indeed the 1:30 a.m. stimulus behind this post ) it hit home just how the lessons of history can resonate today. Ours is a play about two powerful women, two queens who simply cannot co-exist, about the individuals influencing events in the background, and the great universals that are at the heart of all drama; and yet this is also a play that has much to say about The War on Terror, about the lengths to which individuals will go for a cause, the lengths a state will go to in order to protect itself, the place of religion in increasingly secular times and the ‘auld relationship’ betwixt Scotland and England that was subject of referendum just last year. A risk, yes, but without theatre to hold a mirror up to our world, theatre which makes us think, which makes us laugh and which makes us cry, then The Matchbox would be a poorer place. And that is why the curtain will rise on ‘Mary Stuart’ on 19th, 20th and 21st March. I hope you will be there to see what is behind it.
(Tickets for ‘Mary Stuart’ are now available. Details and prices can be found at http://www.matchboxtheatre.org.uk and will be provided in a future post..)