Theatrical triumph in true spirit of Scotland

19th February 2010 at 00:00
As the Culture Secretary considers a Scottish Academy of Literature, the Association of Scottish Literary Studies is pushing for Scottish writers to be included in Higher English. This week: Liz Lochhead

You might assume that one of the best Scottish plays of the 20th century would be a standard text in Higher English courses, but when it comes to the study of our own literature in Scottish schools, things are not usually what we might expect.

Ironically, Macbeth - "the Scottish play" which is not Scottish - is probably still the most widely-used at Higher level, as many English teachers still stick to what they know best. Sadly, many seem to regard Scottish plays as too controversial or parochial.

Liz Lochhead's Mary Queen of Scots Got her Head Chopped Off is centred on one of the most dramatic and controversial figures in Scottish history, and parochial it is not. Students may have little knowledge about Mary, other than what the title of the play tells them, so a brief historical introduction is essential. This is not really a historical drama, however, but an exploration of the powerful national myths surrounding her.

Although the play is deeply Scottish, it is strongly influenced by European drama and its themes are universal: love and hate; power and leadership; intrigue and betrayal; the position of women in a male- dominated society; religious division and bigotry; the legacy of the past; the exploration of identity; myths, legends and stereotypes and so on.

In theatrical style, Mary Queen of Scots is strongly influenced by Brechtian performance techniques popularised on the Scottish stage over recent decades, but Lochhead seamlessly stitches together what she calls "a patchwork quilt", comprising naturalistic acting, role swapping, scene headings, poetry, song, dance, music, mime, gesture, play-within-a-play, tableaux and pageantry - all of which contribute to a very rich theatrical tapestry, leaving us not quite sure what to expect next and keeping us questioning what we see, in the best Brechtian tradition.

This innovative mixture is matched by an eclectic use of language. Lochhead's Scots ranges from the earthy to the elevated, the bawdy to the biblical, the erotic to the elegiac, and the sensual to the satirical. The contrasting use of Scots and English creates the very dynamics of the power struggle at the heart of the play between Mary and Elizabeth, and the occasional linguistic anachronisms, like others scattered through the text, help undermine the historical setting and create a sort of timelessness.

The text offers rich pickings for detailed language study or textual analysis to help students appreciate how scenes relate to the whole.

The performance aspect might also be seen as a challenge, but it is full of opportunities for group work and fun with the text in class, especially as the language will be far more familiar to students than anything found in Shakespeare.

At the heart of this linguistic triumph is the croaking, cynical mistress of ceremonies, "La Corbie", a dark, feathery figure flying on from century to century, yet firmly rooted in the Scottish folk tradition of balladeer and storyteller, as well as the satirical, stand-up comic of popular theatre. An earthy androgynous voice or spirit of Scotland, it is one of the most imaginative creations ever penned by a Scottish author.

We are swept along from Corbie's croaking prologue, offering contradictory perspectives on Scotland, through the dangerous frontiers of Anglo- Scottish relationships, post-Reformation political power struggles and the rivalries of two suspicious queens. The ruthless Elizabeth sacrifices love for power, while the passionate and naive Mary endangers her position in her search for love, which sadly eludes her.

Curiously, Lochhead gives Lord Darnley and the Earl of Bothwell some redeeming features, while John Knox is the stereotypical ranting religious fanatic, responsible for all misogyny and bigotry. Considering her aim of examining myths and stereotypes, it is ironical that she recycles this simplistic view of him.

However, Lochhead is dealing in myth, not history, as highlighted in the final scene where the actors become 20th-century Scottish children chanting the street rhyme "Mary Queen of Scots got her head chopped off" in taunting sectarian voices, reminding us that the scars of the past are still visible. Students could argue at length over whether this is a pessimistic or optimistic ending and what the legacy has been.

There are excellent resources, especially the ASLS Scotnote and study tape by Margery McCulloch, and the Education Pack by Prime Productions (2003). It would help if the BBC could make its 2001 radio production available or, better, produce a TV version of the play.

Mary Queen of Scots Got her Head Chopped Off is one of the most innovative and powerful plays produced for the Scottish stage, and it should feature in every English department syllabus at Higher and Advanced Higher levels.

John Hodgart is principal teacher of English at Garnock Academy, North Ayrshire; John Hodgart

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