Thursday, 5 January 2017

Theatre review: Mary Stuart

My first theatre trip of 2017 should have been one of my last of 2016, but the performance I was due to see was one of several cancelled due to cast illness - presumably the gastroenteritis that's knocked out half the West End and got me last month as well. But everyone's back on their feet now for the latest of Robert Icke's classic reinventions at the Almeida, Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart. In the battle of wills between the last Tudor monarch and her great rival, Icke sees the women as two sides of the same coin - literally, as two actresses share both roles, with a coin spun at the beginning of the performance to decide who plays who. Tonight Lia Williams called heads and won, so the assembled cast bowed to her as Queen Elizabeth I, who's been ruling for eight years and has restored Protestantism to England - along with a stability the country hasn't known for a long time.

Which leaves Juliet Stevenson to play Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth's cousin and her presumptive heir. But she's a Catholic, so not only does the prospect of her succeeding the throne mean further religious upheaval, but a number of plots have tried to assassinate Elizabeth to get a Catholic back on the throne more quickly.

At the start of the play Mary has been captured in England and accused of having played a part in the assassination plots, has been found guilty and sentenced to death. But the ultimate approval for this can only come from the Queen herself, and it's not just her conscience but the potential political ramifications that keep her from making a final decision and signing the death warrant. Schiller gives each woman two of the play's five acts; in real life the women never met but he invents a disastrous meeting for the central act (Mary believed in her own charisma so strongly, she was convinced Elizabeth would never be able to have her killed if she'd met her in person.)

In Hildegard Bechtler's modern-dress design (she also provides a simple revolve that's used sparingly, although when benches rise up and down from it they do so noisily) the leads wear identical plain suits, the actress playing Mary ditching the jacket once the evening's casting is confirmed, Elizabeth staying formal and buttoned up. But the real mirroring of the characters comes in the opposite emotional trajectories they take: Mary starts wild, panicked and desperate as the danger she's in increases, but once her sentence of death is confirmed she settles into a kind of serene acceptance. Williams' Elizabeth meanwhile is a magnetically composed performance of control over her panel of nobles - I loved her dismissively snapping her fingers to permit them to sit, as if she's giving commands to dogs. But as the play goes on it becomes apparent just how much she relies on the men's counsel, and is torn between the bloodthirsty Burleigh (Vincent Franklin) and mild Talbot (Alan Williams.) But with the ultimate responsibility down to her she increasingly struggles to keep her cool - she was always clearly dangerous even when composed, but now she's also unpredictable, and her nervy secretary Davison (David Jonsson) becomes a useful scapegoat when she decides not to take responsibility for Mary's death.

Both women are surrounded by a number of men whose allegiances can't be trusted: Alexander Cobb's French ambassador is supposedly trying to arrange a peacemaking marriage between Elizabeth and a French prince but it may just be a distraction technique. John Light is nervously shifty as the Queen's one-time favourite Leicester, who changes his allegiances more often than his underwear. But most notable is the double agent Mortimer (Rudi Dharmalingam,) whose devotion to Mary takes a sudden and violent turn to the sexually obsessive.

Icke's indulgent running times have become something of a trademark, but it's one he's only really got away with so far because Oresteia and Uncle Vanya fully justified the time they demanded. Although Mary Stuart is also often excellent, I'm not sure it quite matches the other two shows on that front, especially in the talkative first three acts where his blank verse version is good but could have done with being a bit more concise. It's the script rather than the production, although there's also an imbalance between the leads: It's not that Stevenson is bad, it's just noticeable how much more commanding Williams' performance and stage presence are.

Stevenson becomes much more interesting to watch after the interval, which is also when the production as a whole really firms up and becomes something with a distinct and memorable identity. As the end becomes inevitable, the modern dress is abandoned to turn the women into what they're remembered as - Mary a martyr figure and Elizabeth the white-faced Virgin Queen, a figure of absolute power but, with her advisers all having failed her in one way or another, alone and frightened under the mask. In the end it seemed to me this version of Mary Stuart is like an origin story for the painted Elizabeth I as we know her - and whether it's a hero or villain's origin story is the real question. The leisurely first half - coming in at an hour and three quarters - comes close to trying the patience but it's the more urgent and imaginative second half where the production comes into its own.

Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller in a version by Robert Icke is booking until the 28th of January at the Almeida Theatre.

Running time: 3 hours 15 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

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