Newly transplanted to the West End following a rapturously reviewed run at the Almeida, director Robert Icke’s new adaptation of Freidrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart opens with its two female stars spinning a coin onstage to randomly decide which of them will play each of the alternating lead roles. Relayed to the audience in close-up on a bank of TV screens, this nightly ritual is not just a promotional gimmick but a smart thematic echo of Schiller’s historical tragedy about two rival British queens whose divergent destinies are shaped by forces beyond their control. The stars, Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams, arrive onstage sporting identical velvet trouser suits and gamine hairstyles, underscoring the conceit that they are two sides of the same coin.
First performed in Germany in 1800, Mary Stuart dramatizes the last few day of Mary, Queen of Scots (played by Stevenson on press night), in 1587. Though ostensibly facing a death sentence for allegedly murdering her former husband, Mary is more likely to face the chop for political reasons. As a devout Catholic with links to the French royal family, she remains a potential rallying figure for seditious foreign plots against her Protestant blood relation on the English throne, Queen Elizabeth I (Williams). Thronged by an all-male coterie of self-serving advisors and sweet-talking double agents, the “Virgin Queen” wavers between showing mercy to Mary and signing her death warrant, agonizing over the competing pressures of personal conscience and national duty.
Staged on a minimalist revolving set framed by curving bare-brick walls, Icke’s stark adaptation seems to be aiming for the same stylishly muted look and pared-down intensity as his award-winning 2015 production of Oresteia, which also co-starred Williams. He refreshes Schiller’s text with timely references to refugees and asylum seekers, framing pan-European schisms between Catholic and Protestant monarchies as a “holy war” with martyrs and terrorists. But contemporary parallels are not overstated. Timeless themes of personal morality and political expediency remain central. And while it departs from Schiller’s verse blueprint, Icke’s dialogue still has a formal, quasi-Shakespearean register.
The two leads both command the stage like human lightning rods. Trembling with wounded rage at her unjust imprisonment, Stevenson’s Mary alternates between arrogant and humble, devout and devastated. Williams plays Elizabeth as a kind of androgynous Fassbinder anti-heroine, her finger-snapping public swagger undercut by private guilt pangs and deepening insecurity over the much-married Mary’s more regal, worldly, man-eating reputation.
Their mostly male co-stars are a more variable bunch. A new addition to the West End cast, Elliot Levey is superb as Lord Burleigh, a weaselly bureaucrat lobbying hard for Mary’s death, cloaking his religious bigotry in the finery of royal protocol. But Rudi Dharmalingam is stiff and bloodless as Mortimer, a reckless young Catholic zealot invented by Schiller, while stone-faced Henry Rollins lookalike John Light never quite convinces as wily lothario Lord Leicester, an aristocratic double agent with romantic designs on both queens.
The emotional flashpoint of this production is one of Schiller’s dramatic fabrications, a clandestine meeting between the two queens which never happened in reality. Engineered by Mary’s sympathizers in the hope of nudging Elizabeth towards leniency, the plan backfires spectacularly when tense negotiation becomes full-blooded bitch-off. The volatile power dynamic between Elizabeth, outwardly implacable but inwardly riven with doubt, and Mary, forced into grovelling humility but fired by haughty superiority, has real electrical crackle. Mary wins the verbal battle, but in doing so seals her own deadly fate.
Icke’s somber, reverential production could use more of these Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? moments. While admirably high-minded, its three-hour span drags a little during lengthy stretches of moral and legal argument. Sex, violence and humor are all underused fringe elements of the plot, with just a few modest jokes to enliven the cerebral tone. Folk-pop singer-songwriter Laura Marling’s sparse score and climactic ballad, a tremulous foray into Joni Mitchell territory, are classy touches, but they only deepen this overall sense of beige middlebrow tastefulness.
For the finale of Mary Stuart, Icke steps up a gear with a haunting coup de theatre. As the stage revolves, Elizabeth is painted and pinned into her ceremonial face mask and bodice while Mary, stripped to a simple shift, faces the chopping block with beatific resignation. Somehow the doomed religious martyr appears freer than the guilt-wracked monarch, who derides her crown as “a prison cell with jewels.” This symbolic danse macabre is an inspired climax to a refined but somewhat restrained production. A few more such theatrical flourishes and coin-flipping stunts might have elevated Icke’s real-life game of thrones from polished excellence to daring greatness.
Venue: Duke of York’s Theatre, London
Playwright: Friederich Schiller
Director-adapter: Robert Icke
Cast: Juliet Stevenson, Lia Williams, Michael Byrne, Christopher Colquhoun, Rudi Dharmalingam, Calum Finlay, David Jonsson, Elliot Levey, John Light, Carmen Munroe, Eileen Nicholas, Daniel Rabin
Set and costume designer: Hildegard Bechtler
Lighting designer: Jackie Shemesh
Music: Laura Marling
Sound designer: Paul Arditti
Presented by Fiery Angel, Almeida Theatre, Gavin Kalin Productions & Howard Panter