EmptyFriedrich von Schiller's 1800 historical drama of royal intrigue comes to blazing life in director Phyllida Lloyd's staging, imported to Broadway after hugely acclaimed stints at London's Donmar Warehouse and on the West End. Starring Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter, both making far-too-belated returns to the New York stage, "Mary Stuart" looks to be the prestige hit of the spring season.
The play revolves around the conflict between Elizabeth I (Walter) and her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots (McTeer) — which, you might recall if you have a reasonable knowledge of history or have seen any of the innumerable film versions of the tale, didn't turn out so well for the latter.
Von Schiller's drama, given a wonderfully cogent and accessible new adaptation by Peter Oswald, details beautifully the rivalry's personal and political aspects. Its biggest conceit is its imaginary depiction of a fiery confrontation between the queens, who actually never met in person.
While the production is a bit talky and diffuse during the long first act, its second half crackles with dramatic tension, which Lloyd emphasizes brilliantly in her imaginative staging.
The most startling device, and the simplest, is the costuming by Anthony Ward, who also designed the stark but highly effective set. The actresses are outfitted in perfect period dress, but the male actors playing court figures are clad in modern business suits. The results illustrate perfectly the isolation these powerful women must have felt in their male-dominated society.
Other brilliant touches include a torrential onstage downpour, in which Mary luxuriates just before her fateful encounter, and a haunting scene in which Mary's seemingly isolated face appears out of the darkness to haunt the guilt- ravaged Elizabeth.
Walter and McTeer deliver superbly riveting performances. The former is all tight control, gradually peeling away Elizabeth's formidable reserve to display the deep anguish caused by her immense responsibilities, and the latter provides an emotive, vigorous turn that emphasizes Mary's passion, both physical and emotional.
The male players, newly cast for this American production, provide sterling support, with particularly vivid turns by John Benjamin Hickey as the scheming Leicester, Brian Murray as the sympathetic Shrewsbury and Nicholas Woodeson as the calculating Lord Burleigh. (partialdiff)