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The revisitation of Mary, Queen of Scots’ life has become rather popular of late. First, Friedrich Schiller’s play was revived in the West End last year, and it was recently mooted that Scarlett Johansson would play the doomed monarch in a forthcoming movie. Now the National Theatre of Scotland has brought its own version of the German writer and dramatist’s play to the stage, this time in a new version adapted by the Scots playwright David Harrower.

Were Harrower and the NTS to have conceived of the idea the other week, it is doubtful it could have been any more topical. The key figures are Mary Stuart herself and her nemesis Elizabeth I, Queen of England and cousin of Mary, whom she claims succession rights over.

Although the dialect and references, and indeed the costumes of the female leads, are not updated from those of the 16th century, the collection of incongruously business-suited mandarins who advise and jostle both women away from the public eye could be plucked straight from sections of our own cabinet, counselling with one eye on their own best interests.

Among the players in this Shakespearean tragedy are the youthful, duplicitous Mortimer (Robin Laing), nephew of Queen Mary’s jailer at Fotheringay, whose lust for the young prisoner leads him to treason and suicide. Phil McKee plays a key role as Leicester, the one-time love of Mary and currently spurned near-consort of Elizabeth, whose divided loyalties put him in a situation from which he cannot escape.

Amid NTS director Vicky Featherstone’s precisely directed play, however, the two female leads are outstanding, emphasising the mixture of bitterness and respect with which they regard each other, and the near-overwhelming pressures of absolute responsibility. Catherine Cusack’s Mary is serene and graceful, yet understandably bitter at the cruel hand she has been dealt, while Siobhan Redmond delivers an outstanding performance as the reigning Queen.

Her part calls for her to display regality, passion, contempt, almost impossible emotional torment and no small amount of humour, and Redmond’s continual, perfectly stated delivery holds together an already vivid epic. ★★★★☆

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