Review by Sam Waite
Certain historical figures are often presented as villains, depending on the point of view of the fiction created around their legacies. Queen Mary, so famously cruel as to be branded “Bloody Mary”, is an obvious choice for an antagonist – however, if you tell the story with her as protagonist, Thomas Cranmer quickly becomes a villainous presence. Cranmer, the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury and advisor to Mary’s father and brother during their reins, becomes representative of the various men who were shaken and enraged by a woman’s ascent to the throne.
Burn is staged as a conversation between the two, over a chess game played in the dank cell where he waits for execution. With the staging consisting of a table and two chairs, and a chalkboard describing Mary on the back wall, it's easy to immediately believe that this is where a man has been left to wait for death. “Mary I,” the chalkboard reads, “was a strong, handsome Queen. Intelligent, independent and a powerful woman.” Throughout the hour, this will be altered by Cranmer to something less glowing, as the story of her rise to power is told.
Kelvin Giles, as Cranmer, is a bold and effective actor. Both in his conversation with Mary and his recitation to the audience, he strikes a commanding presence and makes it clear that this is a man who fought for the power he wanted and was dismayed to see it threatened. His frustrations are generally more tempered, with the setup being that Cranker has made a written declaration of his abandonment of Protestantism, and the chess game being a contest to decide his fate. His want for forgiveness and to repent is false, but clearly well-calculated.
Mary herself, played here by Frankie Hyde-Peace, is more open in her rage. Hyde-Peace carries out the delicate act of having to present both a delicate, fragile woman who has been hurt many times and in many ways, and also a ferocious, relentless ruler who caused widespread misery on a scale still remembered today. Her anger, literally screaming at the top of her lungs and tearing the simple set to pieces, feels so genuine as to startle her audience, whereas her sadness at her title as Princess being stripped and being overlooked for her much younger half-brother is palpable. While both performers excel in their roles, I would argue that Hyde-Peace’s raw, barely contained emotions are more captivating, particularly in her final, incendiary moments.
These two striking performances are aided greatly by a script by Lucy Beresford-Knox, who carefully keeps the dialogue from being either inaccessible archaic or anachronistically modern – the characters’ tones, more than anything, guests the period – and seems determined to not force either party into the role of villain or victim. Her willingness to explore the pair as humans first and political adversaries second makes for a much more interesting dynamic than framing one as the bad guy and the other a misunderstood saint.
Likewise, Sophie Wilson’s direction keeps carefully from pushing us to a side. We understand that these two have done harm to one another, both personally and their reputations, but neither is directed to behave needlessly cruelly or too sweetly apologetic towards the other. Wilson draws from her actors two immaculate performances, and positions them on the stage in a way that allows us to see the intricacies of their game – both the literal game of chess and their balancing act of emotions and storytelling.
Kudos must be given to all involved, particularly the cast, for not losing any momentum when the show was stopped due to the care being given to an unwell patron. While the Vault Festival staff tended to the patron, the actors remained on stage and in character, not allowing their expressions or emotions to break even as staff discussed the situation with them. Despite this roughly 10 minute break in their work, the two immediately gripped the audience and brought us back into the setting.
Performed and written so well that my only complaint was wanting more, Burn is a standout of my experiences at the Vault Festival so far, and I truly hope to see more from both this show and it's small, incredibly talented team. I have it on good authority that they are hard at work finding their next venue, and I may be first in line when a new space is secured.
The team behind Burn are searching for their next venue. Look out for details of future productions at https://twitter.com/burn_the_play and https://www.instagram.com/burn_the_play/