Review: Jottings from the Queen of Sheba 🌟🌟🌟

Theatre

Jottings from the Queen of Sheba

St Patrick’s Church, Cowgate, v408

Times: various (run ends 25 August, not 21)

🌟🌟🌟 (Three Star)

After negotiating myself round a pile of Stuff which could have been a junk heap or an art installation [I found out later that it was the set for Notre Dame de Paris] I climbed the steps of the church and found my way to the Memorial Room, where one of the Queen’s handmaidens offered me a most welcome cup of tea and a biscuit, and happily engaged in Fringe conversation – obviously the Queen likes her attendants to know the time of day!

The Queen herself is most gracious in welcoming us to her palace: she tells us she is on her way to visit the fabled king Solomon, who is, apparently, full of wisdom. She talks of the long and arduous journey through the desert, mainly by night, and wishes she could have been a trader – until the horrors of sandstorms and lack of water make her realise that a trader’s life is not all joy.

To while the time away on the long journey, people tell stories to each other, and the Queen is sad that ‘all the old family histories are no longer being told’ – so she wants to tell us stories that are common to the Jewish scriptures, the Christian old and new testaments, and the Qur’an. Like all family stories, there isn’t one straightforward version – every family member will have a different account of the same incident!

The Qur’an mentions people and incidents, but doesn’t often tell the story, just saying things like “remember what happened to X”, and details can vary: but there’s a lot of common ground between the three faiths, and it’s the Queen [aka Mary Callan] who wants to emphasise this common ground in a time when there is so much discord and strife.

We hear from Adam and Mrs Adam about life after leaving the Garden; from Noah and his wife and sons; from Lot’s daughters, Joseph’s brothers and Joseph himself; Moses’ parents, Pharaoh’s daughter and the man himself; Jonah; Abraham’s slave wife whom he cast out into the desert and then both Abraham and Isaac’s sides of the story of the sacrifice god ordered. We end with the bits of narrative about Jesus’ early life – and then address the question of what really went on between Solomon and the Queen of Sheba…

It’s a very well-intentioned project, and Mary Callan is very good at painting word-pictures of what life was like at the time of the stories, and making the people come alive. I wish she didn’t use strips of paper fished out of a [goldish] bin to point her in the direction of the next story – the connection between storyteller and audience is lost, and she has to start all over again. I wonder whether a book of some sort – a scrapbook, maybe? – might be a better way of keeping her notes ready to hand.

I also noticed that everyone in the stories, including the Queen, sounded the same, so that at times it wasn’t easy to work out who was speaking. In the conversation that followed the performance, Mary said that she’d realised that all the characters were her, in all her different moods – so I guess that explains that: it’s just a pity there isn’t more variety in her vocal delivery. She pointed out the way different translations affect the way we see a story and the people in it, as does returning to a story after a period of time. She did rather assume that everyone was familiar with the stories of the Old Testament, which is possibly not the case in the 21st century.

I liked her assertion that “bible stories are like a ready meal: you have to add water” – i.e. flesh out the bare bones of the story and add colour and life. This the Queen certainly did, and the [sadly small] audience was duly appreciative. I had to run, but others stayed on, and I hope they had a satisfying conversation.

Mary Woodward