A new production of Mary Stuart glows with relevance, and Charlotte Rowland has only good words to say about it
Earlier this year The Faction Theatre Company performed a new version of Friedrich Schiller’s 19th century work Mary Stuart to rave reviews. Now it’s back for another short run, giving audiences a second chance to see it. Adapted by Mark Leipacher and Daniel Miller, this two centuries old play tells an even older story, of the final days of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, her imprisonment and her execution at the hands of Elizabeth I. A rival to the English throne and the government’s Protestant religion, Mary Stuart is a dangerous threat in Queen’s Elizabeth’s politically unstable and masculine world. Don’t expect any of the stuffiness that the grand spectre of History can sometimes bestow. The play has the pace of a thriller, and the fiction produces complex issues and dynamic characters, far more real than the typical caricatures of popular history.
Performed in the intimate confines of the small New Diorama Theatre, the production and staging is kept minimal to great effect. The actors are divested of the bulky and prominent period costume sometimes used to recreate Schiller’s play. The men wear fairly modern suits, tailored to their characters’ personality, with just a hint of the Elizabethan in the way their jackets are attached to one shoulder like a cape. Mary and her maid are plainly clothed in black with the skeleton of a short full-bodied skirt. This clever staging successfully liberates the play and its characters from the isolation of a historic moment, and (assisted by a more colloquial script than the original) makes the characters and scenes more relatable and accessible to modern audiences.
As the play eases the audience into the historically-situated narrative, it produces a starkly modern stroke that reminds them just how familiar the plot is. At one point in the play, as chaos ensues at reports of Queen Elizabeth’s assassination, the sudden appearance of actors clad in dark sunglasses and military poise evokes the FBI and the threats that still linger for heads of state. These occasional, small symbolic additions work effectively to raise the stakes of the play. It is, after all, a tale about the lengths to which a government and individuals will go to protect themselves and a country from religious extremism and terrorism. The corruption of justice, false-imprisonment, tyranny – these are not issues unfamiliar to the modern world. Nonetheless these parallels weren’t forced, and such aids didn’t detract attention from the gripping plot in which the issues are contained. In another touch of genius the production features projections onto the back wall of the stage, of the character names, documents and pictures through which the plot develops and gains pace. Not only does this give the story clarity, but it draws the audience directly into the action, the plotting and the intrigue developing on stage.
At the centre of all this drama and politics are two queens – Mary and Elizabeth. In mesmerizing performances by Derval Mellet (Mary) and Kate Sawyer (Elizabeth), the struggles and similarities between the two women gain even more depth and become some of the most powerful parts of the production. As the women first appear on stage, displaying all the strength and pride of queens, even without the outfits, it is not clear that these characters are going to be particularly relatable or at all likeable. Again, the clever staging partly eases the singularity of their situation, in comparison to other women, both modern and historical. When Elizabeth appears she wears a red corset that evokes the sparkle and wealth of court life in contrast to the black of Mary’s imprisonment in the preceding scene – but it is paired with business trousers, and the throne she sits in, surrounded by male courtiers, is a tall-backed white office chair.
Sawyer plays Elizabeth as though the royal court is indeed her boardroom, and natural contrasts begin to emerge between her and the (perhaps stereotypical) modern high-ranked business woman, trying to retain power and control in a male environment. Elements of Elizabeth’s situation in the play certainly seem to ring true for some career-driven women in patriarchal societies – the need to adopt a masculine performance in order to fit in, and the ‘sacrifices’ resultantly made to their femininity and their personal lives. Sadly, aside from her status as a political prisoner, there are other elements of Mary’s situation that are familiar. The object of men’s hearts as a queen and a catholic figurehead, she is also viewed by them as a woman, and so by some as a sexual possession. In a harrowing scene, her self-professed saviour who attempts to free her from captivity decides he has earned his reward and attempts to rape her.
Mary Stuart is both a thriller and a tragedy, and it is a tragedy in which both the powerless Mary and the powerful Elizabeth are caught. Both are trapped in a masculine world that leads them to unhappy ends. Critics of the play have debated since its first performance which of the women’s destinies is most tragic. While it is Mary who is executed, she leaves the story in white, flanked by two friends, and (cleverly in this production) ascending a ladder, as if to heaven. It is Elizabeth who is left at the close of the play sitting completely alone. Still, there is sense that Mary has been beaten down and lost her fighting spirit, such that her saintly, sacrificial end cannot be quite satisfactory – as she puts it, “I am a shadow of Mary.” The play is so powerful because it leaves these and other questions and ideas open to the audience: an audience who might struggle to decide upon an answer.
To my mind, however, there is another tragedy that particularly came through in this production: in the masculine, misogynistic world they inhabit, it is the shared femininity of the two rivals at the centre of the play that most divides them. It drives them into a competition with one another that is just as personal as it is political. In the play it is Elizabeth’s jealousy at reports of Mary’s youthful beauty that convinces her (in a fictional diversion from what actually happened historically) to meet her in the flesh, to prove herself the more desirable. And it is when Elizabeth learns of her lover, the Earl of Leicester’s, attraction to Mary, and they become sexual as well as political rivals, that she considers consenting to her execution. In Sawyer’s performance there is a clear sense of insecurity that breaks down the barrier you first feel towards Elizabeth as a character. Though she attempts to be strong and chastises those who talk about women’s weaknesses, at her most vulnerable in the play it is that mantra of society that comes back to haunt her – she declares that perhaps she is “no more than a weak woman.” Even as she tries to eschew the expectations of womanhood, she admits her envy at the marriage and children which Mary has had, but which she has sacrificed in order to be a female ruler. The women at the centre of the play are victims of their unfair society, as well as each other. They may not commend themselves as role models for a female audience, but they offer something soberingly real and familiar to think upon.
Mary Stuart is a play with so many levels, it is little wonder theatre companies want to return to it, and this is a production of the play which I would happily go back to and watch all over again. The actors in this production will completely absorb you. The whole thing is simply intelligent and powerful. Without hesitation, you should take the chance to see it if you can.
Mary Stuart is running at the New Diorama Theatre in London until 22 September.