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Mary’s Hand review at Holy Cross Church, London – ‘well-conceived operatic monodrama’

Mary's Hand at Holy Cross Church, King's Cross, London

The Tete a Tete Opera Festival, running until August 18, thrives on the new and the experimental, so the 80-minute monodrama Mary’s Hand in a sense appears like an interloper. Its conception is so fully conceived that it seems to have hatched fully formed.

Mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin plays Mary I, a marginalised historical figure, whose story is told via through the conceit of a hand of royal cards, reflecting the queen’s apparent real-life fondness for card games. After introducing herself (as “the one you don’t like”), Mary then turns the cards to reveal her father Henry VIII, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cranmer, Edward VI, and so on – her half-sister Elizabeth I is later introduced as “the one you love” – telling her story in terms of the cards that fate dealt her. Chance plays its part in the present too, as the members of the audience are on occasion invited to choose the next card, and so the piece’s following episode.

The scheme does tend to stifle a narrative arc and there’s a hint of turning through the chapters of a history book, but there’s enough variety in Martin Bussey’s music to carry it through. The writing is linear, finely wrought and daringly spare – even considering there are only three players – drawing on ideas as diverse as Gregorian plainchant (heard in masses of Mary’s time) and pastoral song.

McCaldin convincing brings the music, as well as Di Sherlock’s potent text, to life. Her beautiful dress, recreated from a portrait of Mary by Hans Eworth, is practically a character in itself. In a poignant directorial stroke, layers of the outfit are gradually peeled back – so that at the end Mary stands only in an undershift, having it seems defined herself independently of her office.

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Well-conceived operatic take on the life of Mary I