Writer: Friedrich Schiller
Adaptor/Director: Robert Icke
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
As the audience waits for Almeida’s production of Mary Stuart to begin it is hard to ignore a series of screens that feature an image of a coin in a golden bowl. This is one of a number of ways in which director Robert Icke brings tension and anxiety to his adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s play – a spin of the coin determines the roles that Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams will play each night. Tonight the coin comes down ‘heads’ so Stevenson plays Elizabeth 1 and Williams Mary Stuart.
While it would have been fascinating to see the result had the roles been reversed one has to say it feels like the audience won the spin of the coin. Stevenson and Williams are so perfectly suited for the roles they have been assigned by fate that the other alternative seems likely to have been a disappointment. Lia Williams captures the impetuosity and sly cunning of Mary Stuart and, in a key moment, her arrogance and sense of entitlement. Juliet Stevenson is marvelously imperious – commanding her subjects with a snap of her fingers. The coin also serves as a metaphor for the different ways in which the two Queens exercise their power. Mary and Elizabeth behave like different sides of the coin. Williams is willful with a hint that she enjoyed the access being queen gave her to eligible men while Stevenson suggests a ruler worn down by the responsibility of command to the extent that Elizabeth becomes petty and a bit cowardly – despising her subjects and forcing others to take the consequences for her actions.
Mary Stuart, Catholic Queen of Scotland, escapes from imprisonment by the Scottish nobility and seeks sanctuary with her cousin the Protestant Elizabeth I, Queen of England. But Elizabeth is unmarried, aging and has no heir so she, and her officials fear that the general population might prefer to see the younger Mary on the throne. Mary is imprisoned but that is not enough for some advisors who demand she be executed. Desperate, Mary asks for what becomes the dramatic centrepiece of the play: a face-to-face meeting with her cousin.
Mary Stuart combines elements of both a courtroom drama and a political thriller. Mary Stuart is eloquent as any barrister is arguing the minute details of the trumped-up legal case against her. Elizabeth has to second-guess those in her court who want, for political reasons, to see her married off and must cope with the fact that her subjects will blame her should Mary be executed. There is also the psychological aspect of the play with Elizabeth jealous that her cousin has been free to marry whoever she chose and not be bound by political restraints. Despite such promising material Mary Stuart is verbose and long and benefits greatly from the imaginative approach taken by Robert Icke.
This is a modern dress production but that is not the only contemporary factor. The establishment of the Church of England is portrayed as leaving England every bit as isolated from Europe as the Brexit vote. Elliot Levey’s scheming Lord Burley is very much in the style of modern politicians like George Osborne who seem to enjoy the power they exercise.
Robert Icke sets a barren and oppressive atmosphere. In the background there are muffled drumbeats and an eerie wind constantly echoing and the bare walls of Hildegard Bechtler’s minimalist set are stark and threatening. The sole exception to modern dress comes in the stunning final scene and suggests that Mary Stuart’s death was a form of sacrifice required for Elizabeth 1 to truly become the Virgin Queen. The final image of Elizabeth transformed into an untouchable but isolated monarch brings a superb revival to a tremendous conclusion.
Runs until 21 April 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan