Mary Stuart is a wholly absorbing evening, and perhaps the best example yet of Robert Icke’s skills in going back to classic plays and reworking them with both apt contemporary overtones and great respect for the universal themes and lineaments of tradition that given them enduring value.

Mary Stuart
Words are sound and sense – and not just sense. And sound and sense cannot be separated. Words built up into sentences have rhythm when spoken aloud. And verse… can add pressure and poise and petrol to a thought. Verse is thought blossoming, bursting into words – in real time.

Robert Icke

Schiller’s play is hardly unfamiliar whether as a literary text or as regularly performed theatre work. Moreover it has made a successful transition to other art forms, notably in Donizetti’s opera Maria Stuarda. However, Schiller’s other plays, with the possible exception of Don Carlos, have few outings now, particularly in this country.

So it is perhaps worth asking first of all what it is about this play that continues to compel the attention of a range of directors and actors. Certainly it is not historical accuracy: the central scene where the two queens meet never took place – in real life Elizabeth was careful to see that this did not happen – and there are many other departures from the accepted record, not least in the breathless timeframe.

The lasting appeal lies in a mixture of the practical and metaphorical. There are few plays where there are two such equally weighted yet contrasted parts for women to perform: matched at every level, and – as this production emphasises – mirroring one another as women and rulers at various key points.

It is a perfectly symmetrical piece, with the first and final acts showing Mary in prison, the second and fourth depicting Elizabeth at the centre of court politics, and the great central act in which the two queens confront each other outside Fotheringay Castle. As the survivor Elizabeth is accorded an epilogue that stands ruefully outside strict time and place.

Mary Stuart

At the metaphorical level the play commands respect for the way in which it finds a dramatic correlate and embodiment for some of the key clashes that perennially take place between political calculation and personal and familial rivalry. Though Mary and Elizabeth never met historically, the play is faithful to the spirit of the dilemmas that each faced and to the complex reasons they played out their hands in the way they did.

It is also genuinely exciting, in the manner of a political thriller like House of Cards, by compression of the action into little over twenty four hours, and through a cracking pace which gives a real sense of political crisis and how finely balanced the outcome actually was.

Another important feature in the success of this production is the verse translation by Robert Icke, who also directs. As he notes in his introduction, part of which is quoted above, verse is often seen these days as an obstacle rather than as an aid to drama; yet as written and delivered here it provides a thrumming and thrilling undercurrent both to the set-piece speeches of both queens and the rapid fire exchanges of dialogue at the moments of high tension and confrontation.

One hopes that the many young actors who have seen this production or will use this text in future, may transfer its demystifying lessons into the playing of Shakespeare and other dramatists where verse speaking is crucial to success.

The two leading roles are locked together in paradox even before the two actors playing them get to work. Mary is the apparent weak victim, exiled from Scotland, imprisoned in England for many years, and now sentenced to death for conspiracy to overthrow her cousin Elizabeth. And yet in several respects Elizabeth is still the more vulnerable: her royal title, unlike Mary’s, dubious, her subjects divided in politics and religion, and facing invasion from states that wish to place Mary on the throne.

Mary StuartMoreover, as women they are rivalrous too: Mary, has survived three husbands, a rackety private life and has an heir, already on the throne of Scotland; whereas Elizabeth, for all the ideological panoply of the Virgin Queen, is unmarried, with the succession unclear, and surrounded by warring factions of courtiers. Even the man who is her secret lover, Leicester, is keeping his options open with Mary too. For Elizabeth, a ‘crown is a prison cell with jewels.’

It is for this reason that the dramatist – and the translator – can have Mary say at the end of the play: ‘In the end, we were the same’. This provides the seed of the idea which has become the most striking feature of this production, namely having the two leads alternate the roles. In an initial ceremony a coin is spun (we see a video projection) and the actor who calls ‘heads’ takes the role of whichever royal image falls uppermost. The two identically dressed actors are then distinguished from one another by deference and disdain and the action begins.

On this particular evening Juliet Stevenson played Mary, and Lia Williams, Elizabeth. Both were in terrific form, though playing against natural type.

Such is Stevenson’s fierce feistiness as an actor that the more artfully weak, meek and wily role of Mary required her to run against her strong tendency to dominate from the front. She was quite outstanding in the confrontation scene at the centre of the play where the whole point is that ultimately she cannot be narrowly political and cannot contain her haughty disdain for who Elizabeth is. She was also very affecting in the several scenes with her attendants, played with great self-conscious dignity and great emotional reach.

Williams’ Elizabeth is a changeable, moody creation veering from haughty disdain and a determination to be more ruthless than the men around her, through to a panicky fearfulness and girlish self-pity on the other. She is someone who really does believe that ‘appearances are what things are,’ thus making it all the more credible that she should finally embrace and find sanctuary and entombment in the hooped skirt and full-fathomless finery of the traditional iconography of Elizabeth.

Mary Stuart
It is to the credit of the players and the writing that neither queen is presented as continuously high-minded: both are capable of pettiness and spite towards each other and to their underlings. Mary deftly sticks the knife into Leicester even when she stands on the edge of the scaffold, and Elizabeth tries to deflect responsibility for the execution onto her secretary rather than take responsibility herself (the latter incident true to life). This adds to the richness of the human drama of people operating at the boundaries of pressure and tension according to the highest of stakes.

The supporting cast, which is admirably colour-blind in casting, is mostly very strong, with a few exceptions. Vincent Franklin’s Burleigh had the fussiness of the eternal bureaucrat together with the determination of a Machiavellian politician. David Jonsson captured the dilemma of Elizabeth’s Secretary caught between impossible demands, as did Sule Rimi, as Mary’s honest jailor, Paulet.

Alan Williams displayed bluff common sense as Lord Talbot, with a willingness to tell the truth to power. Similarly, Alexander Cobb talked back to the English court with oily condescension as the French ambassador, and Carmen Munroe talked back with crisp, tart diction and devotion as Mary’s maid, Kennedy.

Rather less successful was John Light as Leicester: this is a very tricky role to bring off credibly given his tendency to appear to be all things to all men – and women. It came over as rather under-characterised in performance: one did not get a full sense of why Elizabeth found him such a compelling and attractive a companion. Perhaps this is the one drawback of now knowing who you are going to play opposite from night to night. The queens may be mirrors of themselves, but it is different if you are another player.

Mary StuartAlso disappointing was Rudi Dharmalingan, as the double-agent, Mortimer. This role requires edge, menace, lack of scruple and a fanatic intensity, a bit like Edmund in King Lear, and unfortunately none of these qualities were very visible in his playing.

Beyond the quality of the acting and direction, Hildegard Bechtler’s set and costumes were admirably streamlined and effective within the limited space of the Almeida.

Much of the action took place on a raised circular revolve with three benches and exits running off at four points. There were spectacular splashes of colour at points where needed, but for the greater part the effects were restrained and directed towards simplicity of flow and action.

This is a wholly absorbing evening, and perhaps the best example yet of Robert Icke’s skills in going back to classic plays and reworking them with both apt contemporary overtones and great respect for the universal themes and lineaments of tradition that given them enduring value.

Read our Review of this production with Juliet Stevenson as Elizabeth and Lia Williams as Mary.