Made queen six days after birth, bequeathed to be married by five years old, widowed by 18, and the sole Catholic in charge of a Protestant government…
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.
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. As the coin spins, tensions in the audience rise. In matching velvet trouser suits, white shirts and cropped gamine hairstyles, both Stevenson and Williams await their fate. As the coin settles, the entourage of male, self-serving advisers acknowledge the anointed 'Protestant' queen (on press night, Williams called 'Heads' and played Elizabeth) with an elaborate bow; Mary sheds her jacket and shuffles off stage barefoot, Elizabeth struts forth and reign supreme.
It sounds gimmicky, but thanks to the almighty talent of both actors, the coin toss adds an extra frisson. And beyond demonstrating the remarkable versatility of memorising two wordy roles and being able to switch between them nightly, the role-switching gamble 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, forces beyond their control; their parallels and similarities are striking.
Williams excels as Elizabeth. Her waif-like frame waltzes around the stage with a befitting sense of majesty. But as she vacillates between strong, disdainful queen and merciful kindred sister, Elizabeth's internal power struggles unfold. At the click of her fingers, a puff of a cigarette, Elizabeth's advisers come clacking. Yet, as she navigates assassination plots, duplicitous lovers (John Light is quite hateful as slime-ball Leicester), and smooth-talking advisers (Elliot Levey is the ultimate self-serving Burleigh), her isolation, vulnerability and fear of her 'jeweled prison' are revealed.
As in the 2016 Almeida production, the modern, minimalist round stage rotates to mirror the dual perspective and show the action from both sides, without overshadowing the plot. In this barren setting, we see the clandestine meeting between the two queens unfold with dramatic climax; historians will know this meet never actually happened. Coming head-to-head on stage, Elizabeth and Mary fight to the death. Scrambling on the floor, in a heated exchange of scathing words, Mary's tragic fate is sealed.
Following four acts of intense action, here, the narrative changes pace. Stevenson's Mary adopts a calmer, more sanguine exterior. She relinquishes control, her desperation for power dissipates, she embraces her fate with complete exaltation; an eerie calmness cloaks the once politically-charged stage.
Only in final scene, in the dreamy strains of a 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, review, Duke of York's Theatre|
|Where||Duke of York's Theatre, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4BG | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
13 Jan 18 – 31 Mar 18, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£10 - £95|
|Website||Click here to book now|