Theatre Vivat! Vivat Regina! Mermaid Theatre, London

'There is too much rant. Lord Cecil would never have survived at the heart of Elizabeth's court so long on mere windy booming'
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The Independent Culture
Robert Bolt's play about Mary, Queen of Scots was first presented at Chichester 25 years ago. Clearly it aspired to be a companion piece to the playwright's breakthrough of 10 years before, A Man for All Seasons. In the interim, his fortunes had been mixed, spectacular in the cinema, disheartening in the theatre.

The result provided some material satisfaction. Respectfully received, the play ran a year in the West End, bringing great credit to Eileen Atkins as Elizabeth I and a degree of sympathy for Bolt's wife Sarah Miles in the more elusive role of Mary. But it was never filmed, and Bolt would have only one more stage project mounted.

Like most revisionist historical drama of its vintage, Vivat! attempts to anatomise realpolitik. What it achieves is more theatrical pattern- making than true analysis. Bolt's mouthpiece in the long opening scene is Mary's man Claud Nau, who roundly opines of Elizabeth, "She too mistakes her office for herself." Thus is made explicit the way things will go, the mirror image each woman is to be of the other. Having served his dramatic purpose, Nau all but drops out of the play. It is that kind of an evening.

What distinguishes Bolt from those younger playwrights who took historical subjects - Bond, Barnes, Brenton, Barker, Edgar, Griffiths - is the language: particular, high-flown, studied, dense. Many will find the play old-fashioned, lacking the brute strength of its successors. But Bolt's language is both more subtle and more dynamic than this production reveals. The play's natural home is almost certainly radio.

Roy Marsden's revival launches a new company based at the Mermaid. Aspiring to be "a new force in British theatre", Pageant Theatre Company puts its cards on the table. Its first original play will be The Trial of Charles I. I fancy Maxwell Anderson, Christopher Fry and Jean Giraudoux lie along that same road. If Pageant fails, Marsden will surely be in line for Chichester.

At the Mermaid, the auditorium is thick with incense as we enter. This is no doubt to underscore the sneer of the fundamentalist John Knox: "perfume - the whole place needs scrubbin'." Bolt reserved his most wolfish fun for the churchmen but, in a series of judicious prunings, Marsden has reduced this ingredient. That Knox is played by Rab C Nesbitt's petty bourgeois brother-in-law, assuming Rab's own fearsomely declamatory attack, is an incidental if distracting pleasure.

There is altogether too much rant in the production. Lord Cecil would never have survived at the heart of Elizabeth's court so long on mere windy booming. The Queen herself is Janet McTeer, delineating Elizabeth's progress with fanatical attention to detail, even as she oddly throws away some of the lines. It is a consummate performance, positively Streep- like, but with a similar transparency of technique. So it is the opposite of Norman Hartnell's brilliant image of monarchy in describing Princess Margaret's wedding gown: "All the work is under the dress."

As Mary, Barbara Flynn has a goodly amount of dress changes, all becoming. Following the clean line of the costumes, she is clear, direct and sympathetic, touching in, then abandoning a French inflection. The staging is four square, the set red plush with sliding screens to mark changes. There are too many funny foreigners.

n To 25 Nov. Booking: 0171-236 2211