Theatre review: Mary Stuart

Written by Sebastian Whale on 20 December 2016 in Culture

Robert Icke’s three-hour production highlights how something as ostensibly benign as the toss of a coin can have far reaching consequences.

It is easy to get ahead of yourself in extrapolating themes in art that you place against contemporary society. But as we were treated to Mary Stuart at the Almeida theatre; a tale of two women ruling England and Scotland, judges allegedly not being fit to judge, the country north of the border choosing a different path to its contemporaries in the south, a leader wrestling with the will of the people despite being ambivalent of their choice, it is hard not to find strings of resonance in Robert Icke’s wonderful adaption of Friedrich Schiller’s tragedy.

A toss of a coin each night determines whether Juliet Stevenson or Lia Williams (pictured) plays Queen Elizabeth I or her nemesis, Mary Queen of Scots. On the evening in question, it was Stevenson that fate decided would portray the Queen. Williams was quickly stripped of her shoes and much of her clothes as she was incarcerated as the ill-fated Mary Stuart. The surrounding men bowed towards Stevenson, subservient to her as the Queen of England. This feeling of uncertainty, that something as benign as a toss of a coin could have such influence, such consequence, is kept throughout this three-hour play. 

Stuart was imprisoned on spurious charges of seeking to overthrow Elizabeth to stake her right to the throne. Forty-two judges found her guilty and sentenced her to death. Given Scotland’s religious bent Catholic Europe however considers her England’s legitimate ruler. Elizabeth, a protestant now excommunicated by the Pope, must decide whether to authorise the death penalty and risk a Catholic uprising, making a martyr of her foe. Or does she leave her imprisoned, but in doing so galvanise a rebellion that gains sustenance from her incarceration. The other half of a divided nation wants Stuart’s head for affronting their Queen.

With Stuart we see a human fragility in her close personal relationships, an emotional draw that sees admirers seek to secure her escape, but a steadfast resistance to patriarchy. This is best orchestrated during her exchanges with Lord Burleigh, played by The Thick of It actor Vincent Franklin, a straight-edged confidant of Elizabeth who relays news of her death sentence.

Elizabeth is left wrestling with whose advice to follow in the Royal Counsel. With contradictory takes, she must decide whether to listen to the mischievous Earl of Leicester (John Light), the voice of the Ken Clarke-like Lord Talbot (Alan Williams), who quips to ripples of approval from the Islington audience that “a majority does not prove something is right”, or the ruthless pragmatism of Lord Burleigh. Her decision on whether to authorise Stuart’s execution will have far-reaching consequences.

Our heroines are very much two sides of the same coin, each subject to the will of the people, and trapped by the voices around them. This is reflected in the chemistry between Williams and Stevenson, and why they can so readily interchange between the characters. When the pair do meet for the first time, their parity is clear.

So as we are reflect on 2016, one cannot help but ponder about the impact of choices, and the disparate paths that follow from something finely balanced. The decision to hold a referendum, changing how members can vote in leadership elections, the butterfly effect of political whim and political will. And I could not help but think of Theresa May. The voices she gives greatest credence to in her Cabinet will shape Britain’s future as it prepares to leave the European Union. Fail to follow through on the electorate's wishes and she risks an uprising. Butcher our exit and see its effect play out for years to come.

Mary Stuart is set in modern dress on a simple wooden, rotating set. The calibre of actor on display is on another level all together, leaving you comfortable in the fact you are watching people at the very top of their game. It is a truly gripping three-hour play, and an eerie reminder of how circumstances hundreds of years ago still carry weight today.


Image by Manuel Harlan.

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