by Sam Juliano
The dramatic fireworks that have always informed the tempestuous relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots has always fascinated biographers, historians and filmmakers, yet the proper venue for the high-stakes power games between the royal cousins is the stage. After an absense of 40 years, Frederick Schiller’s Mary Stuart has been revived, in a dramatically exquisite production that showcases two of Britain’s finest actresses, Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter. Mc Teer won a Tony Award in 1997 for her compelling performance as Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll House, while Ms. Walter is an acclaimed Shakespearean.
The new version of the play by Peter Oswald and directed by PyllindaLloyd is an examination of entrapment, which in literal terms informed Schiller’s interpretation of the imprisonment of the Tutor monarch Elizabeth, who for a period of four years was incarcerated in the Tower of London, before her triumphant return to cheering throngs to become Queen of England. Once in power, Elizabeth was assailed as “illegitimate” by Mary, who her herself is imprisoned. Her nurse Hanna declares emphatically that she’s “bricked up alive.” The question of course as to who will survive in this scintillating battle of the wills is easily answered by a cursory look back at history, where both woman are revealed as intelligent, savvy and politically adroit, but where one uses her new-found power and popularity to expectedly prevail. Yet, even though the emotional and fiery Catholic Mary is far different in this sense than the icy Protestant Elizabeth, both are reliant on the support of the masses, who could change on a dime, and both were raised on a public stage, and know what it takes to remain in favor.
The play opens at the point where Mary has been a long-standing prisoner of the British crown. The political maneuverings as history tells us are done without any meetings between the two, but Schiller’s play, like the film version Mary Queen of Scots cannot deprive the audience of such an electrifying dramatic moment, and in the production’s piece de resistance the two meet in a rain scene that may well be the theatre season’s most extraordinary single scene. A simulated rain, apparently negotiated by stage ceiling sprinkler’s and water traps, as well as superb sound effects that create thunder sets the stage for an atmospheric rendezvous, where Mary gets soaked and Elizabeth, true to her demeanor remains dry. Yet the scene is notable for its especially enthralling cross-fire, which regardness of historical inaccuracy, was the one moment that clearly delineated the disparate styles of the two erstwhile heroines.
History has both condemned and exonerated Elizabeth for her complicity in Mary’s eventual demise, claiming alternately that she knew she needed to extinguish the wildly-popular competitor, yet she steadfastly resisted for a long time signing the death warrant. The unanswered question has to do with Elizabeth’s humanity and whether it was solely fused by political aims. Hence throughout the play Elizabeth suffers a Hamlet-like quandary on whether or not to act, and therein is the essence of the conflict and of the various machinations that fueled the drama. The play shifts from the royal court to the Fotheringhay Castle prison, where the questions of edict and fate are wrestled with in the court of male figues who are motivated by selfishness, sexual interests and political advancement. The staging is wisely minimalist, and the look is stark, which of course informs the urgency of the subject and the inevitable denouement, that we know from history, even if this production balks on presenting that tragic ending for Mary.
In addition to the two stars, Benjamin Hickey gives an uncompromising turn as the Earl of Leicester, Maria Tucci is affecting as Mary’s maid, and Robert Stanton is a mountain of naivete as a courtier. Anthony Ward’s costumes, includemen in dark suits and the women wearing the resplendent costumes of the day, with Elizabeth’s gold serving as both a reminder of her regality and a contrast to the lower class citizens she controls. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting is central to the experience as it accentuates the alternating rhetorical salvos fired from the opposing camps.
Mary Stuart reminds me of the delicious but potentially lethal verbal banter that informed Anthony Schaffer’s Sleuth, where two actors played a dangerous game, a war of wills, where one sidewas doomed to defeat. The knowledge that one sidemust lose seems unfair but the way there is is fully enrapturing, especially with performers like McTeer and Walter.
Note: I saw “Mary Stuart” on Thursday, June 4th with Lucille and Broadway Bob at the Broadhurst Theatre at 8:00 P.M. We had a snack at the Mercury Lounge before the nearly three-hour production. Bob hit the jackpot afterwards with autographs from several including the extremely affable two British superstars.