It is difficult not to go all Charity Hope Valentine – ” All I can say is Wow!”- over Robert Icke’s flawless and thrilling revival of Mary Stuart. Because, after a year where extraordinary productions of plays have been few and far between on the West End, Mary Stuart attains a very high benchmark. Sharing the central roles of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams toss a coin each night to decide who plays which Queen, and then proceed to give luminous, exhilarating and extraordinarily revealing performances, exacting every emotion and nuance from every scene. This is what live theatre is all about.
You treated me as your enemy from the start and as the other – and ignored my claim, and how you look at something’s what it is: if you had simply named me as your heir which I have every right to ask of you I would have been your truest friend – and family.
It starts with a ritual, a very formal one. As the audience has settled into the seats, members of the cast, in modern dress, have assembled at the back of the stage area, silent, watching. Then, two women enter from either side of the auditorium: dressed identically, black trousers, white blouse, black velvet jacket; both have that regal air and both have red hair.
They pause. They look into the eyes of transfixed audience members. Breathing is difficult; tension is suddenly high. Then John Light is doing something. The women ascend from the auditorium, stand opposite to each other. Lia Williams calls “Heads”, and Light spins a coin in a bowl, tossing it but also evoking the sense of a roulette wheel. Suddenly, there seems to be a serious game afoot.
The coin settles. Light sees the result, but says nothing. He stands, backs away. The ensemble watch him carefully, but he betrays nothing, the ultimate politician. Then, deeply and reverently, a modern take on Elizabethan courtly etiquette, he bows towards his monarch, Queen Elizabeth I.
Williams smiles in triumph. Juliet Stevenson seems thrown, but it is to she that all of the cast now bow. Tonight, she will play Elizabeth and Williams Mary Stuart. The atmosphere is electric.
This is Robert Icke’s revival of Frederich Schiller’s 1800 masterpiece Mary Stuart, now playing at the Almeida Theatre. It is, in every way, magnificent.
Icke’s opening ritual cements the overall conceit. Picking up the hints in Schiller’s text, the Queens are very similar, two sides of the tossed coin, literally and figuratively. Their fates are entwined, each is a prisoner of the other. They are more alike than not, yet their outward persona seems very different. They are where they are by chance, an accident of birth.
As well, they are engaged in a political game, one of strategy and bold movement, swift decisions. They are powerful women in a world dominated by entitled men who presume to know their minds and hearts. Leicester, played by Light, has made himself the power-broker. He announces who is Queen by his actions – who knows if it is his decision or the coin?
Everything about the set and costume design assists with all of these notions. Hildegard Bechtler has excelled herself in converting the Almeida space into a compelling battleground for Icke’s personal and political tapestry. Two raised circular platforms, a brick wall, some bench seats that rise and fall, a central revolve – there is a claustrophobic feel about it, one that reinforces the sense of imprisonment that haunts both Queens.
Part arena, part gaol, part Court-room; these sensibilities are ever constant in the space. Not to mention that, at certain times, the stage area resembles a crown, underlining the regal nature of the protagonists. It is startlingly simple and wonderfully effective.
Bechtler’s option to use essentially modern costumes is also a winner. The formality of the suits worn by the ruling classes emphasises the dignity and power they wield, but also makes them human, contemporary. When the decision to behead Mary is taken, Stevenson’s Elizabeth is elaborately dressed, by the others in the cast, in the kind of Elizabethan garb we associate with that Queen: the gold robe, the white face, the ruffle, the triangular red hair. This underlines that Elizabeth could not be the Queen we know until Mary was beheaded; one of those occasions when costume design significantly affects the lucidity of the directorial message.
Icke’s adaptation is accessible, spare and direct. There is no airy persiflage; words are part of the political armoury, deceptive, misleading, crucial. It is verse, but verse which illuminates rather than obfuscates meaning. Even at the cruellest points, there is lyricism and beauty. The language never slows the pace, but it assists in the understanding of the complexity and long reaching effects of the narrative.
But it is the performances which really shine. While the toss of the coin might affect the key roles, the supporting cast is exemplary, not a dud among them.
Light is especially good as Leicester, a man with such loose convictions it is never sure which side of the debate he is on. He is a man who looks after himself first and others third. He does superb work with each of the Queens, proving how insidious and treacherous Leicester’s soul is. His mastery of the verse is clear, every word is measured and clear. He creates real moments of acute tension as he worms his way in and out of tricky situations.
Vincent Franklin is acerbic and fastidious as Lord Burleigh, and his contempt for Light’s Leicester is marked and reciprocated. It’s a pungent pairing, of the all smiling, all betraying kind. As Talbot, Alan Williams is both benign and bittersweet, a true loyalist but one not glamorous enough to have Elizabeth’s total trust until it is too late. These are powerfully intense performances.
Rudi Dharmalingham makes Mortimer a passionate and earnest supporter of Mary Queen of Scots. He walks the line between ardent potential lover and fiercely loyal insurrectionist with real skill, making the audience feel for him even though his chosen Queen does not. His suicide is a grim and viscerally sad moment in a play full of difficult moments.
Alexander Cobb is terrific as the impetuous and impotent French envoy, Aubespine; Daniel Rabin makes Kent a stoic and determined Court official; David Johnson is superb in the scene where Elizabeth signs the death warrant but refuses to specify what she wants done with it; Eileen Nicholas is proud and fair as Melville; and Carmen Munroe brings warmth to the table on behalf of Queen Mary. There is superb work from all.
At the centre of everything, though, is Stevenson and Williams, two actresses at the height of their powers giving incandescent performances that shift and swing, imperceptibly, grandly, extraordinarily, between woman and Queen, always leaving both extremes firmly to the fore. The confrontation between them in Act Three is riveting – you barely take a breath for fear of missing a second of the exchange.
Williams, as Mary, is vengeful, arrogant, articulate and moody – you feel her anger activate every fibre of her being. At the same time, the fear and inadequacy of essentially commoner status is profoundly debilitating- she plays as a woman born to a throne and raised to rule from it. Her incomprehension ate her fate is as magnificently centred as her hatred of those that have impriosned her. She fluctuates between polar positions with rigour and comprehension; her Mary is a complete and completely complex woman. The sense of martyrdom at the end is inescapable.
As Elizabeth, Stevenson is a force of nature. Brutally imperious, sensuously insecure, capricious and caring, Stevenson finds every morsel of Elizabeth and tosses it firmly into view. She is nobody’s fool, nobody’s puppet, and nobody’s friend – she fears for her country as much as she fears for her own self, and she puts her own self on the line when weighing up the right course of action. When she finally is garbed in the finery of Elizabeth I, her eyes are hollow orbs, full of repentance and fear. It is extraordinary to watch her rise as Queen and, in rising, fall.
There is no reason to think that Williams and Stevenson would be less effective in the other role, coin permitting. The exciting thing, truly, is knowing that it is possible to see that other combination – for, make no mistake, this is not, despite the title, a play about Mary Stuart. It is a play about two remarkable women in a time when remarkable women were not allowed to simply be remarkable.
Wonderful in every way.