Guest reviewer: Thomas Joy
“I am the one you do not like.”
The opening line of McCaldin Arts’ new production, Mary’s Hand, is the knell that sets the scene so beautifully for this new piece.
Indeed, the next line, “I am history’s creature”, strikes at the heart of what this piece is. A hauntingly intimate portrait of Mary Tudor, a one-woman production in which Mary (portrayed by the divine Clare McCaldin) tells her story from her point of view, attacking the narrative that has been created since her rule. And so, the scene set, Mary quite literally ascends to the throne by the altar, beginning a 70-minute piece that takes us on a journey through her life.
The piece is pleasingly full of symbolism, and the use of a pack of cards (referring to Mary’s own love of playing) as an aid to tell the story, as well as using it to determine the structure of the piece, is both witty and inventive. Asking the audience to ‘pick a card’ introduced a random element to the structure, which did make following the narrative a little tricky at times, but as a trade for McCaldin’s coy flirtation with the audience, it was very much worth it.
McCaldin’s performance itself is mesmeric. Fully encompassing the character, McCaldin transitions seamlessly between the heartbreak of miscarriage to the mad ramblings of a woman scorned, and yet still ekes out every drop of sympathy from the audience. Her vocal dexterity is impressive, and she rises to the challenge of the score valiantly. The character of Mary requires so much, especially in such an intimate study of such a complex character; McCaldin’s Mary is equally playful, virtuous, vulnerable, and flirtatious, taking us through the throes of womanhood, loss, power and politics.
She is accompanied by three brilliant musicians who each bring skill and mastery to a fiendish score: Heidi Bennett on Trumpet, Gabriella Swallow on Cello, and Clare Hoskins on Oboe / Cor Anglais. They manage to bring life and vigour so powerfully to each of the sections of the piece, from melancholy to madness, each working in great synergy with each other and McCaldin.
Special mention must also go to Andie Scott and Sophie Meyer for their stunning creation: Mary’s costume takes on a life of its own, undergoing an unravelling transformation in parallel to its wearer, it’s a stunning piece of work and through Di Sherlock’s masterful direction, becomes a real highlight of the piece.
Holy Cross Church serves as a perfect venue, if not an entirely comfortable one. The ambience and setting is wonderful, with the acoustics just right to enable McCaldin to deliver the range of the piece as she did. Martin Bussey’s score is itself an accomplished piece, and whilst the orchestration was fantastic and the variety of genre and mood impressive, the focus on structure, form and motif did leave me yearning for something more classically melodic. The symmetry in complexity of Mary’s character and the score is commendable, but with so many references to Mary’s contemporary life, and an acknowledgement that she was herself an accomplished musician, it might have been nice to hear some more obvious musical references.
My verdict? This piece is thoroughly enjoyable, McCaldin Arts have not just reached, but exceeded their brief of bringing to life historical characters, examining their lives provocatively with passion and modernity.
Mary’s Hand runs at the Holy Cross Church (King’s Cross) until 2 August 2018 as part of the Tête à Tête opera festival – tickets are available online. It will also be performed on 27 April 2019 as part of the Music in Pinner Series.