MARY AND THE CONQUEROR. Directed by Roy Sargeant, with Diane Wilson, Adrienne Pearce, Armand Aucamp and Francis Chouler. At Artscape until October 15. TYRONE AUGUST reviews.
SOME plays take you on a journey of the imagination. Other plays engage more directly with questions about the human condition. Local playwright Juliet Jenkin, very ambitiously, attempts to do both in her new work Mary and the Conqueror.
Written as part of the Artscape New Writing Programme, it explores two relationships separated in time and place – one between an English couple, Mary Renault (Wilson) and Julie Mullard (Pearce); the other between Alexander the Great (Aucamp) and Hephaistion (Chouler) in ancient Greece.
However, this device is not as fanciful as it appears. Renault was, of course, a writer who located many of her novels in that earlier period. Jenkin cleverly explores the many common threads in the lives of the two couples, not least of which are their relationships with those of the same gender.
Mary and the Conqueror is primarily about the powerful emotions that bound these two couples to each other. However, in particular in the case of Renault and Mullard, the play also touches on the broader society in which they found themselves.
The English couple, for instance, met when they were nurses during the 1930s in pre-war Britain. “It’s no-one’s business but ours,” Renault tells Mullard. “You’re my secret.”
The relationship between Alexander and Hephaistion may not quite have faced the same kind of pressures in Macedon (same-sex relationships were not uncommon then in Greece), but there were other strains: they lived in a time of brutal wars.
As is now common knowledge, Alexander eventually built the Greek state of Macedon into one of the largest empires in ancient history. Gradually Hephaistion, a commander in Alexander’s army, becomes appalled by the loss of life and tells Alexander: “We are losing our way.”
However, the young king is determined to forge ahead with his conquests through Asia. “The dead must help themselves,” Alexander replies dismissively.
Centuries later, Renault defends him from a disapproving Mullard: “We can’t judge him by today’s standards.”
The constant criss-crossing between the two sets of characters throughout the play is fascinating. In the hands of a less skilful writer, it might have come across as contrived.
Yet Jenkin weaves the two stories together seamlessly (with the help, it must be said, of Alfred Rietmann’s inspired stage design).
For instance, Renault describes the South African anti-apartheid organisation Black Sash as “so womanish”. In some ways, this echoes Hephaistion’s reference to women as being preoccupied with “fabrics and perfumes”.
But reflections on war and attitudes to women remain of secondary concern in Mary and The Conqueror. It is, primarily, about the deep love of the two couples for each other. This is the heart of the play.
Nor does Jenkin portray their relationships in an overly romanticised or over-idealised way. She also explores the difficulties and tensions they encountered. At one point, a hurt and angry Mullard tells Renault: “I’m not a dead man on a horse.”
At this level, the play succeeds. However, some aspects of their relationships are dealt with less satisfactorily. For instance, physical attraction and desire are accentuated only in the male couple (the male actors are often dressed in nothing more than white undergarments).
It is unclear whether this is because Alexander and Hephaistion are portrayed in their youth (after all, Alexander did not live much beyond his early 30s), or because the playwright is exploring differences in sexuality between the genders.
Nevertheless, Jenkin shows in Mary and the Conqueror that she is a writer of considerable talent. She manages to bring to life four characters from very different periods in history and from very different geographic locations. It is quite a daring project; on the whole, though, it comes off.
This is due, in no small measure, to an outstanding cast. Wilson is utterly convincing as the captivating Renault, while Aucamp just about matches her as the majestic yet flawed Alexander. Chouler also impresses as Hephaistion, but unfortunately a less developed character limits Pearce’s ability to excel.
The director, Roy Sargeant, obviously went to great lengths to ensure the authenticity of the play: he consulted those with expert knowledge on Renault (Owen Murray) and Alexander the Great (Professor John Atkinson). Two accent coaches were also roped in to assist the cast.
The result is a most enlightening look at Renault’s life and the influences on her writing (both personal and historical). The team behind Mary and The Conqueror deserve much credit for their innovation and hard work.