Mary’s Hand is a new opera by writer Di Sherlock and composer Martin Bussey. As part of the Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, the work was presented at Holy Cross Church at Kings Cross with McCaldin Arts founder and astonishing mezzo-soprano, Clare McCaldin. The dramatic life and difficulties Queen Mary I faced are explored in this 80-minute piece through a one-woman performance with an exceptional trio, including trumpet player Heidi Bennett, cellist Gabriella Swallow, and oboe and cor anglais player Clare Hoskins.
For McCaldin’s regal dress, Andie Scott and Sophie Meyer meticulously designed it. It is so life-like that it takes the performance back to the Tudor era, as if the Queen herself was standing right in front of us. Through the use of eleven playing cards, McCaldin revealed Mary I’s relationship and encounters with important people in her life, such as her half-sister Queen Elizabeth I and her father Henry VIII. Randomly, she walked over to members of the audience and asked them to pick a card, which created an episodic structure for the performance and made it feel fresh.
McCaldin guided the audience into the world of ‘Bloody Mary’ and outlined a character we could empathise with, even if historical sources give a different account of the Catholic Queen. The outset was clearly defined. McCaldin appeared statuesque, majestic and Queen-like, yet the more she opened up about Mary’s dark, intimate past and the political battles she fought, McCaldin looked no different than any other woman who had suffered numerous tragedies. Each card permitted her to peel away another piece of clothing, leaving her vulnerable, feeble and entirely human. McCaldin told me in an interview about the level of research she did (here) and what she found most fascinating about Mary. ‘Her transition from cosseted child to lonely adult was traumatic as a result of the events following Henry’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and pursuit of a son at any cost. The domestic and religious convulsions at court over the next twenty years affected Mary deeply. Her relationships with her father and half-siblings were characterised by an exhausting mixture of fear, rage, love, duty, pride and stubbornness. In spite of this, she achieved moments of greatness, but her biggest failures were also her most public and painful. It’s an extraordinary life.’
McCaldin’s body language on stage was deliberate, poised and enlightening. Her voice soared elegantly across the church and she engaged the audience’s attention with every breath. The songs and spoken text are impressively detailed and include many historical events, including Mary’s betrothal to the Holy Roman Emperor at six years old, being forced to change religion and her inability to conceive a child. It seems that Di Sherlock has a wealth of knowledge on the Tudor family and managed to systematically integrate this gracefully into the music.
The score and instrumentalists play a crucial part too. The composition sets the tone for each episode, card and person, encased with their own special motif. One can notice how the music for the child Mary never had is playful and light-hearted compared to how severe and dark the atmosphere changes when she talks about her sister, the Virgin Queen. Holy Cross Church is a wonderful venue to put on a performance of this religious nature given Mary’s struggle in a world slowly turning towards Protestantism. However, acoustically, it wasn’t always possible to hear what McCaldin was trying to say or sing, and there were no surtitles provided. Nonetheless, the audience got a sense of Mary’s sentiment and emotional torment evoked fluently through McCaldin.
I was offered a press ticket to review this show.[Header shot: Clare McCaldin as Queen Mary I in Mary’s Hand. Photo by Robert Workman]