Theatre Review: Mary Stuart (2016)

Dense Elizabethan political wrangling lifted and galvanised by an enthralling script and powerhouse performances.

Friedrich Schiller’s play Mary Stuart was written in 1800 and is set in 1587, but this adaptation by Robert Icke feels as current and involving as any top modern political drama. As a politics and history dork I was pre-disposed to like this, and ended up loving it, hanging on every word, machination and double-cross.

The play specifically focuses on the final days of the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots at Fotheringhay Castle. Judges have voted for Mary’s execution for treason, but Queen Elizabeth I has so far held back from allowing the sentence to be carried out, fearing that it will spur the Catholic powers of Europe into invasion and the papists of England into rebellion. While Elizabeth is pulled this way and that by her councillors, Mary herself frantically tries to plot her way out of the ever-tightening grip of her captors.

This production’s special conceit is that at the start of every performance the cast assembles on stage, with the two leads, Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson, staring each other down at the front. Another actor silently kneels between them and spins a silver coin, the result of which is projected on screens on either side of the stage. One of the leads calls heads or tails, with the loser then playing Mary Stuart and the winner playing Elizabeth I. As soon as the result is clear, the whole of the rest of the cast instantly bows deeply to the new Elizabeth, while the actress playing Mary is swiftly and brutally disrobed and bundled off stage. It’s a thrilling moment.

When I saw it, Williams played Mary while Stevenson played Elizabeth, and they were both fantastic, each steely yet vulnerable. I would be fascinated to see the performances the other way round, but it seemed to me that Williams’ smaller stature and Stevenson’s more sonorous voice seemed to lend themselves to this particular power configuration.

Besides the outstanding leads, the supporting characters were also very well played. We meet young Mortimer (Rudi Dharmalingam), a secret Catholic plotting to free Mary at the Pope’s behest, and whose fiery intensity drives much of the play’s action. Then there are Elizabeth’s machiavellian advisors, Lord Burleigh (Elliot Levey) and the Earl of Leicester (John Light), whose agendas pull the queens this way and that. The wonderfully oleaginous Burleigh, a sort of Elizabethan Humphrey Appleby, is a cold-blooded pragmatist and eminence grise, urging execution at every turn, while Leicester is desperately scrabbling to save his own skin, having been lover to both royal ladies.

The main theme of the play is elegantly put across, namely that both Elizabeth and Mary have a great deal in common, and would likely be close friends were the situation different and were they not being manipulated by powerful men. In this way it reminded me a little of the superb recent TV series Feud, which portrayed the vicious and unnecessary rivalry between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. It’s sad to think what could have been if other interests weren’t at stake.

It’s a wordy play, but in the tradition of great political dramas like The West Wing or James Graham’s This House, when the words are this tightly and propulsively written and the stakes are this high the time just flies by. I urge you to try to see this if you’re in London before it ends at the end of March.

Book tickets here.

Written by: Friedrich Schiller, 1800; adapted by Robert Icke, 2016

Directed by: Robert Icke

Seen at: Duke of York’s Theatre, London, 2018


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