The Theatreguide.London Review
Almeida Theatre Winter 2016-2017; Duke of York's Theatre Spring 2018
A fascinating and exciting theatrical experiment brings two of our finest actresses together in rich and juicy roles – and the only frustration is that you will probably only experience half of the adventure.
Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams are sharing the central roles of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots in Robert Icke's modern dress adaptation of Schiller's drama. But who plays which is decided by the spin of a coin at the start of each performance.
So even if you wanted to, you couldn't come back another night with the assurance of seeing them switch roles.
And that is almost the only complaint I can make about this brilliant and emotionally resonant production directed by adapter Icke.
The rival queens have fascinated historians and creative artists for centuries, since their story embodies politics, religion, personal animosities, treachery, theories of kingship, sexual jealousy, a competition in which nobody could be considered the winner, and two larger-than-life personalities.
The facts are fairly simple. Catholic Mary had almost as strong a claim to the English throne as Protestant Elizabeth – her son would in fact be the next English king – and if she did not actually instigate a number of Catholic plots to assassinate Elizabeth, she was certainly their inspiration.
So when events brought Mary into England, Elizabeth had her imprisoned for years and eventually executed.
Schiller's drama focuses on that imprisonment period, as various members of Elizabeth's court urge her to kill or spare Mary, in almost every case having personally ambitious agendas behind their positions, while others (and sometimes the same people) attempt to rescue Mary, again for reasons of their own.
Meanwhile Elizabeth herself wavers, knowing that her own motives are tainted by sexual jealousy and by the fear of setting a precedent for the killing of queens, while Mary vacillates between imperious conviction that she is in the right and simple fear of dying.
Schiller's dramatic accomplishment is to bring both women alive as individuals and not just figureheads, and Robert Icke's contribution is to clarify the complex and ever-shifting political manoeuvring going on around the two.
Even without the rich portrayals by the two actresses at its centre, this Mary Stuart would be a fascinating who's-doing-what-to-whom political thriller, with Rudi Dharmalingham's Mortimer and John Light's Leicester keeping us guessing from minute to minute whose side they're on (and 'their own' is not always the right alternative answer), while even such respected and confidence-inspiring elder statesmen as Vincent Franklin's Burleigh and Alan Williams's Talbot expose hidden agendas that shake their moral high ground.
And now to the two stars. The spin of the coin meant that I saw Lia Williams as Mary and Juliet Stevenson as Elizabeth, which in some ways was the easier and more natural casting, since Williams, for all her ability to project strength, brings a womanly fragility to Mary while Stevenson, for all her femininity, carries a natural authority and strength with her.
That is not to say that either is limited or one-dimensional. One of Stevenson's most powerful moments comes when Elizabeth's reserve and self-control breaks down and she gives way to open jealousy of the more sexual and just more attractive Mary.
And Williams turns Mary's final scene, in which she prepares herself and her followers for a dignified and royal death, into a foretaste of the superb performance she will someday give as Shakespeare's Cleopatra.
Along the way both actresses bring fascinating and unexpected colours to their characterisations, enriching our sense of the women and of the multi-layered complexity of their shared story.
But inevitably you will find yourself imagining, in scene after scene, how the other would have played that moment, and it would be nice if the Almeida (as other theatres have done in roughly parallel situations) had just a few casting-announced-in-advance performances for those who want to come back.
My only other complaint is that at over three hours the evening is long, and that just at the point where the end is clearly inevitable and things should seem to speed toward it, the pace becomes leisurely and the energy level drops.
Every cast member I've named is excellent (as are the rest), and the two stars beyond praise. Coming at the end of the year, this Mary Stuart is one of the theatrical triumphs of 2016.
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