The relationship between Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots has been well documented and explored many times on stage and screen, but a one-woman representation of the two queens and their relationship is an unusual event. Miriam Cooper, the writer and performer of Prostitutes Marry In May, brings the women to life through significant moments in their childhood and adult lives, interwoven with the political intrigues at the Tudor court and the influence of the men in their lives. Eventually, of course, Elizabeth is persuaded that Mary threatens to depose her as Queen of England and signs her death warrant, an act Cooper rightly portrays as the devastating betrayal of a family member as much as the act of a monarch.
Cooper is undoubtedly a talented writer and actor and Jonathan Kemp's direction gives the play pace and energy. The work takes as its source the letters and other material housed at the Maritime Museum in Greenwich, using the thoughts and words of the two women to explore their lives, updated for a contemporary audience. This is accomplished admirably, with Cooper switching skilfully from one role to another and one accent to another without ever missing a beat. She is convincing as both child-Queen and adult Elizabeth, as the young and grown-up Mary or in portraying the Tudor courtiers who shaped both their destinies.
At times though, it all feels just a bit too relentless, too overwrought, too melodramatic, with a couple of outbursts that are unfortunately reminiscent of Blackadder's Queenie rather than the historical figure of Elizabeth, and which ultimately prevent this piece being elevated to the status of a genuine tour-de-force. Having the characters address the audience directly is also a mis-step which fits awkwardly and interrupts the flow, creating an odd, suddenly panto moment.
The stage is minimally set with a chair/throne and the representation of the executioner's block. The Waterloo East Theatre is a perfect venue for this piece. With its location beneath the arches of the station, the regular rumblings of the trains overhead add a portentous unbidden sound effect to the action without ever drowning it out.
Minor reservations aside, this piece is well worth checking out. Miriam Cooper is a talent we'll surely be hearing more of.