Yes, I know I haven’t blogged in about two years. I feel bad, but I’ve also been busy. However, given it was the Donmar Warehouse’s 2005 production of this very play (starring Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer as the English and Scottish queens respectively) that first kindled my passion for the theatre, I felt I should try to put down some thoughts about the current Almeida production.
At heart, Mary Stuart is a brilliant piece of writing, and therefore much depends on the casting of the two central figures and in what way the text is interpreted. In the Almeida production, Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams play both roles, decided in the opening minutes of the performance by the toss of a coin. I saw Williams as Elizabeth and Stevenson as Mary.
It’s difficult to shake the landmark performances of Walter and McTeer from one’s mind if you were fortunate enough to see that production, though Stevenson and Williams are two more of Britain’s finest actors at work today. For me, though, Stevenson was perhaps a bit less sensual than McTeer as Mary, and less believable at being held prisoner for nineteen years. But, Stevenson has one of those voices that really works for Schiller’s drama, which is so Shakespearean; you can’t fault her delivery and she was marvellous, luminous even, in the closing scenes when Mary is moments from death.
Williams’ interpretation of Elizabeth emphasised her frailty and her weakness more than Walter’s. Yes, Schiller is interested in how Elizabeth is also imprisoned – by her sex, by her position, by her crown – but Walter also brought an iciness, even a viciousness, to the role. Elizabeth, in Williams’ hands, felt more buffeted by the demands of the people and the conflicting advice of her courtiers, at one point writhing on the ground in frustration at her own impotence. Despite this, though, Williams’ Elizabeth last night also felt more philosophical and a keen intelligence was visible, albeit differently portrayed. Williams is also much more provocative as Elizabeth, which worked for the most part, though I did have reservations about Icke’s overtly sexual moments between Elizabeth and Leicester. I’m not sure the face-licking was wholly necessary…
Doubtless much has been said about that opening coin-toss, and I’m in two minds about it. I don’t think it’s a gimmick. It’s actually very clever, reminding us of the parallels between these two women and how little separated them: how much is decided by such small actions, how thin the line between life and death, power and impotence, right and wrong. But it did also make me wonder about how the other actor would play the opposing role, and ask whether they might have given more towering performances if they’d focused on just one part. But, saying that, I’d be more than happy to sit through another performance (and it comes in at over three hours) with the actors playing the other queen, which says a great deal about the strength and fascination of this production.
Icke’s adaptation felt like it resonated a touch more with contemporary events than the Donmar’s 2005 version, but then much has happened over the last decade, and particularly in the last twelve months. There were echoes of the refugee crisis, religious divide, Europe and Brexit. But it was sensitively done, and not heavy-handed or intrusive. It felt, too, that Icke’s version highlighted the women’s weaknesses much more, though perhaps that is my own sensitivity towards recent events both in the UK and the US.
Interestingly, both the Donmar and Almeida productions used a similar design aesthetic: a very bare stage with just a brick wall and a bench or two. The Almeida version felt a bit more light though, and perhaps at moments we could have used a bit more darkness, particularly so that the contrast was felt between freedom and imprisonment when Mary is allowed out of her cell. I did like the Almeida’s sound direction though, with a ticking clock in the background reminding us of the pressures on Elizabeth to make a decision and that Mary is running out of time. Laura Marling’s final song that accompanies Mary to her death was particularly powerful.
While everyone, including the two queens, wears modern dress in the Almeida production, the Donmar version saw the women in Tudor dress. There’s much to be said for both – the Donmar’s wardrobe highlighting how the two women are equal only to each other and that they are different from the courtiers and commoners, while seeing them dressed the same at the Almeida reinforces the point that they are so very similar and that things could have been so different… At the end of the Almeida production, in perhaps the most powerful scene of the evening, we see the women wearing period clothing for the first and last time. As Mary is divested of her black trouser suit, to stand pale and thin in a simple white slip, she is stripped of everything and is seen as a common prisoner. Simultaneously, Elizabeth’s courtiers are dressing her in full ceremonial dress, daubing her face in white, adorning her with jewels, crowning her in glory. But as Elizabeth stands there in all her finery, in this huge dress that completely dwarfs the woman inside, she feels even more trapped than she has throughout the play, somehow even more at the mercy of her position and her people, even more alone, even though she has vanquished the major threat to her position and security. While Mary has achieved a kind of freedom in her death, it feels as though Elizabeth has been pushed back further into her cage. It is a not so subtle warning about the tricky, slippery nature of politics and the elliptical nature of power.
Find out more about the production on the Almeida website here. The production is now enjoying a West End transfer, playing at the Duke of York’s theatre until 31st March 2018, and then touring. More information here.