Lia Williams (Elizabeth) and Juliet Stevenson (Mary Stuart) in Mary Stuart at the Duke of York’s. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
The Lowry, Salford Quays
Until Saturday 21st April, 2018
With the casting of the play’s central roles decided at the beginning of each performance by the toss of a coin (done in front of the audience and shown in close up via video screens), a sense of fate and mystery imbues Robert Icke’s dynamic and seamless modern dress adaptation of Schiller’s great political thriller from the off.
Stripped back, stylised and presented against Hildegard Bechtler’s rotating, bare-brick set – in a fluid, composite staging that significantly echoes that other Almeida Theatre hit, King Charles III, in its circular, arena-style approach – Schiller’s heavyweight verse drama has been effectively reinvented for the modern age, here drawing out a greater sense of the scheming and backstabbing, and putting greater focus on the pressing contemporary issues of justice and immigration. Never has the imagined meeting between Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots felt so fresh and immediate.
Unsurprisingly, Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams both deliver exceptional performances in the central roles, though having seen the taller, imposing Stevenson as Elizabeth and the skittish, agile Williams as Mary – both so perfectly suited to those respective characters – it is difficult to imagine the roles being reversed, or it working as effectively the other way around.
Prior to the decisive coin toss, the androgynous-looking pair enter the arena from opposite sides of the stage – in matching black velvet trouser suits and white shirts – and await their fate, watching, waiting for the coin to drop. Then, with a nod from the Earl of Leicester, the company angle towards the evening’s chosen monarch and bow, as Mary is stripped of her regnal jacket and bundled off to her cell. It is brilliantly memorable moment that adds such suspense and theatricality to proceedings, and one that makes us think about the consequence of the alternate outcome, with each Queen ultimately haunted by the other.
The themes of symmetry and duality course through Icke’s cleverly restrained production with such intricacy and skill, and we are constantly reminded of the imprisonment endured by both – a constant theme further symbolised in Bechtler’s circular designs. Mary’s prison is a physical one, Elizabeth’s most definitely mental, with the latter suffocated by the weight of the crown and an increasing sense of isolation.
Set to a haunting, melancholic folk song from Laura Marling, a perfectly staged final sequence brings both Monarchs to the revolving stage for one final time, with Mary now stripped down to a simple execution gown and Elizabeth transformed into her familiar get-up, complete with white painted face, orange wig, ruff, corset and magnificent Great Farthingale. Mary, now released from her nightmare , is finally free; Elizabeth, shackled by the confining period costume like an exhibit prepared for public view, is left on stage, utterly alone, as the light begins to fade.
In the Lowry’s cavernous auditorium, some of the supporting performances unfortunately suffer from both diction and projection issues, though there are standouts from Elliot Levey as Burleigh, John Light as Leicester and Christopher Colquhoun as Paulet.
Some artistic license and liberties are of course taken with the updated, modern dress production – some of which don’t always work so well given the historic, period setting – and the numerous video screens – there to announce the beginning of each Act and countdown the time to execution – proved highly troublesome and a major distraction for most of the first act. Numerous reboots and flashing Panasonic logos in the dark are not ideal!
The subject matter and lengthy running time may be off-putting to some, however in the hands of Icke, and of course, Stevenson and Williams, Mary Stuart is no mere historical, period-piece but a deeply intelligent, powerful and often humorous exploration of the emotional and mental anguish suffered by two of history’s most famous figure, one that combines human drama and absorbing thriller in equal measure.
Running Time: 3 hours and 15-minutes (approx.), including one 20-minute interval.
Final Performance at the The Lowry, Salford Quays: Saturday 21st April, 2018
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