Glyn Maxwell's The Lifeblood is 'a superb piece of theatre' at the Barn in Welwyn Garden City

Danny Swanson as Sir Thomas Gorge and Celia Roberts as Mary Stuart in The Lifeblood at the Barn Theatre in WGC

Danny Swanson as Sir Thomas Gorge and Celia Roberts as Mary Stuart in The Lifeblood at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

Ruth Heppelthwaite reviews poet and playwright Glyn Maxwell's historical play The Lifeblood, about the last days of Mary, Queen of Scots, at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City.

Danny Swanson as Thomas Gorge, and Francine Ross as Claudine in The Lifeblood at the Barn Theatre

Danny Swanson as Thomas Gorge, and Francine Ross as Claudine in The Lifeblood at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

At school in the 1970s, ‘Tudors and Stuarts’ was the only curriculum for history. I learnt Treaties and Alliances parrot-fashion, off the blackboard!

How I wish I’d had the opportunity to see Glyn Maxwell's production of The Lifeblood 30 years before it had been written! It may have helped me to achieve a History O Level grade to be proud of! 

This superb drama was first performed in 2001 at Islington’s Hen and Chickens Theatre, and moved swiftly on to perform in the Edinburgh Fringe, receiving The British Theatre Guilds award for the Best Play 2004.

Maxwell has used his poetic voice to bring history alive, taking his audience through those final months of Mary Stuart’s life as though we are a fly on the wall.

The staging is simple. Designed by Rosemary Bianchi, we feel the cramped and confined conditions Mary and her secretary Claudine are forced to live in.

In time we witness Mary being stripped of all dignity as the staging is gradually reduced to a single chair.  

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Their costumes reflect the opulence of Elizabethan times and contrast with the dark, simple puritanical outfit worn by Dame Edith Paulet.

Hannah Sayer as Dame Edith Paulet and Glyn Maxwell as Sir Francis Walsingham in The Lifeblood at the Barn Theatre

Hannah Sayer as Dame Edith Paulet and Glyn Maxwell as Sir Francis Walsingham in The Lifeblood at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

As members of the audience, we encountered a 3D experience. (I, for one, am still convinced I had a waft of beer as the letter passed from Sir Francis to Claudine).

Rob Wallace created a sound collage that complemented the atmosphere and very cleverly put us in the centre of Claudine’s cell. Here we are immersed with a constantly dripping tap and Sir Francis interrogating from all four corners of the room. 

We found ourselves isolated with Mary in the Star Chamber as we faced the 50 judges, their voices echoing around the room.

Even the final scene, when the footsteps of the last departing member from Walsingham’s containment continued after the actor had departed, was a magical touch.

To bring to life such a superb piece of theatre needs actors who can deliver this intriguing plot without alienating the audience and Maxwell’s cast delivered this effortlessly.

Danny Swanson as Sir Thomas Gorge and Celia Roberts as Mary Stuart in The Lifeblood at the Barn Theatre in WGC

Danny Swanson as Sir Thomas Gorge and Celia Roberts as Mary Stuart in The Lifeblood at the Barn Theatre in Welwyn Garden City. - Credit: John Davies

Mary Stuart, played by Celia Roberts, proud and defiant to the end, was particularly bewitching during her final speech in the Star Chamber.

Claudine Arno, played by Francine Ross, portrayed her devotion to Mary with a joyful energy.  

We felt her breakdown and confusion in the cell facing Walsingham, portrayed by Maxwell, whose performance was effortlessly cruel, manipulating every event to his advantage.

In contrast, we see Sir Thomas Gorge portrayed by Danny Swanson in constant conflict with himself and trying to hold on to the right decision.

I was reluctant to single out one actor from this uniformly excellent cast, but I have to say that it was Dame Edith Paulet, played by Hannah Sayer, who had me entranced.  

Her cold, objective puritanical vision that is finally ebbed by doubt was beautifully executed (no pun intended!).

This production takes us back to a time when Parliament was full of skulduggery and mistrust. Thank goodness time has moved on and lessons learned. Or have they?

The Lifeblood runs in the Barn main house until Saturday, April 30 at 8pm, with a matinee at 2.30pm on Saturday. Tickets cost £13 and are available from the box office on 01707 324300, or online at www.barntheatre.co.uk.