Leading ladies don't get any more interesting than the real life Mary Stuart, immortalised in British History books as Mary Queen of Scots. Friedrich Schiller's classic play of 1800 explores the intensity of political and personal superstition as it zooms in on reigning Queen Elizabeth and imprisoned sister queen Mary, switching between court and prison.
The action centres around rival queens, Mary and Elizabeth, and escalates towards an execution that is ultimately tragic for both victim and survivor.
Now, in the hands of auteur Robert Icke Mary Stuart gets a radical reworking, so the Elizabethan power struggle feels archly like our own post-truth zeitgeist. Instead of dragging the whole narrative into a contemporary setting, the production plays on the parallels with a timely study on women in power, and the pressures of a flawed political system.
The duality between the two women at the core of the story shapes the production. Juliet Stevenson (Happy Days) and Lia Williams (Oresteia) switch roles for every show. The play begins with the toss of a coin, which decides who will play Mary and who will play Elizabeth.
It sounds like the kind of gimmick usually associated with experimental fringe theatre, but thanks to the almighty talent of both actors, it’s a safe bet. And beyond demonstrating the remarkable versatility of memorising two wordy roles and being able to switch between them nightly, the coin toss emphasises the arbitrary distinction between the bastard and rightful heir, or the protestant and Catholic. The fate and rights of the women are determined by chance; their parallels and similarities are striking.
The modern, minimalist round stage rotates to mirror the dual perspective and show the action from both sides, without overshadowing the plot. Both queens wear Hilary-worthy trouser suits. Only in final scene, the the dreamy strains of a new Laura Marling song, does the Elizabethan aesthetic appear. As Mary strips down to a slip for execution, Elizabeth is be-decked in full Tudor regalia, complete with corset, oversized skirts and white face. It’s a curiously moving final image and a fitting metaphor for this masked Queen, confined by all that liberates her.
|What||Mary Stuart, Almeida Theatre review|
Almeida Street, Islington, London, N1 1TA | MAP
|Nearest tube||Highbury & Islington (underground)|
02 Dec 16 – 21 Jan 17, 7:00 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£10 - £48|
|Website||Click here to book via the Almeida Theatre|