Review: Mary Stuart and the Redemptive Hagiography of British Female Monarchs.
By Gus Subero
Writing a review for the second recent run of a play in the West End can never offer a novel insight into the stage work by the playwright or the themes explored by the play itself. However, what is certainly fascinating about the new revival of Friedrich Schiller’s play in Robert Icke’s new adaptation of Mary Stuart is the fact that Icke’s continues to surprise audiences with very slick and modern productions of old and canonical texts (his Oresteia still playing heavily in one’s mind nearly two years after production). And Mary Stuart does not disappoint. From the very beginning (and due to the hype created by Icke’s new take on the main roles), spectators are in tune with the play as they eagerly await to discover who, on that very night, will play Mary Stuart and who will be Elizabeth Tudor. In a rather ceremonial opening, the audience is witness to the toss of a coin that decides the fate of these two magnificent actresses, in much the same way, the fate of the two historical characters were intertwined by what seemed like the ironic toss of a coin by the historical figures that surrounded the development of Mary’s imprisonment and Elizabeth’s decision to behead her. This production saw Juliet Stevenson play the cold-hearted and troubled English monarch, while Lia Williams played the rather delicate and more spirited Scottish queen. However, it would have been interesting to see whether the same nuances would have persisted when the roles were swapped around. None the less, both their performances are electrifying.
The play clearly sides with the Scottish side of history by trying to portray Mary Queen of Scots as a victim of the machinations of people in her Scottish court (who wanted to trial her for murder) and those of the English court (who wanted to trial her for treason). However, Stevenson’s performance achieves a level of bidimensionality that humanises Elizabeth I and shows the tribulations of a woman trying to uphold and reaffirm her position as a legitimate queen, as well as those of a woman who feels trapped and coerced by her royal responsibilities, hence unable to be true to her real self. Stevenson is both fragile and stoic, torn between duty to her country and a desire to show clemency to her dear cousin, and more importantly, a woman who realises her own shortcomings as a female in power. On the other hand, Williams is delicate and even childish at times; depicting a queen well known for her beauty and elegance and for her carefree attitude to men and to some of her royal duties. The plight of the imprisoned queen is humanised by little touches and gestures that show a woman who is resolute not to let the world realise her fears and a naïve hope that she will not be used as a scapegoat in her cousin’s court. What is even more affecting in this production is that, when the two queens share the stage, it feels like they are not representing two different historical figures, but two sides of the same coin (which becomes even more interesting considering that a coin is the one to decide how the play evolves in the first place).
The simplicity of the staging (three semi-circular benches that characters use to develop their own scenes) make it more important that every single and small detail of the gestures and nuances of the two lead characters are closely observed in order to gain an insight into the final days of Mary Stuart and the psychological turmoil that both queens had to endure as a result of both their actions and their royal status. By the same token, the decision to dress them in very similar attires (with the English queen only recognisable by her velvet suit jacket and her heeled shoes in contrast with her jacketless and barefooted Scottish counterpart) continue to feed into this notion that, perhaps, both her stories were similar in more ways than meet the eyes.
The rest of the male cast, all sporting three piece suits, provides a sense of sameness to all the male figures in ways that alludesto the fact that men in either side of the confrontation were kind of indistinguishable in terms of their real intentions towards both monarchs and were more interested in attaining power through manipulating them. It is even more effective that the only break to this costume rule occurs towards the end of the play when Elizabeth has finally signed Mary’s death warrant. At this point Mary is presented is just a long white chemise providing her with an aura of purity and almost virginity (rather ironic for a queen well-known for her love affairs and for murdering her husband), while Elizabeth is dressed in period costume as in The Ditchley Portrait by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. At this point she can barely move due to the constraints and awkwardness of the dress. However, her robotic behaviour seems to symbolise the fact that she was never in full control of her actions and that signing Mary’s beheading was as much the doing of someone else’s will than her owns. If there’s anything that one can take from this play, it is something I heard quite a few times during both the interval and by the end of the play and that was a clear curiosity to research and read on both female monarchs in order to get a sense of factuality and to make sense of the historical facts behind the lives of both queens.