Shaftesbury Avenue has been packed to the upper circle with Schillers this year. First, Michael Grandage’s production of Don Carlos transferred from Sheffield to the Gielgud, to rapturous acclaim. Now Mary Stuart, originally staged at Grandage’s Donmar Warehouse, has transferred to the Apollo. Having already been lauded in its original, more intimate, home, Phyllida Lloyd’s production now takes to a bigger stage. Matthew Amer attended the press night…
A strong, imposing woman, isolated in a world of men: this description applies to both leading characters in Schiller’s play, Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots. While one, Janet McTeer’s Mary, dressed for much of the play in a drab brown dress befitting her position, is imprisoned by the walls of Fotheringay Castle, Harriet Walter’s much more familiar, personable Elizabeth is imprisoned by her own position; unable to lead the life she may want for fear of upsetting ‘her people’. The queens are the only people who understand each other’s position perfectly, yet they are also each other’s greatest threat. Around these two characters, others revolve like moons orbiting the irresistible force of a planet. David Horovitch’s snidely manipulative Lord Burleigh tries to influence Elizabeth at every turn. Guy Henry’s ambitious Earl of Leicester is just as duplicitous in his love for both cousins. Rory Kinnear’s emotionally charged Mortimer agrees to kill for one queen, while plotting to free the other.
One of the most intriguing aspects of the play is the way Schiller has subtly massaged the acknowledged facts of history to heighten the drama of proceedings. A number of key moments cannot be found in any history books, and yet they do not jar at all with the bona fide facts among which they nestle. There is, for example, no historical record of Elizabeth ever meeting Mary, yet it is perfectly plausible that they might have met in secret. This is a possibility Schiller exploits for the play’s climactic storm scene, in which rain is brought to the Apollo stage, soaking McTeer as she cavorts like a schoolgirl before meeting her cousin who, in contrast, receives the protection of seven umbrellas.
The same goes for the zealously Catholic Mortimer; who does not let the fact that he never existed get in the way of becoming a dashing conspirator alongside Mary, exploiting Elizabeth’s notorious soft-spot for young suitors in a perfectly plausible manner.
Poetic licence (this time on the part of adapter Peter Oswald as well as Schiller), is also evident in the portrayal of the queens themselves. If there is one thing everyone knows about Elizabeth I, it is that she had fiery red locks, yet Walter’s natural brunette hair remains brunette for the performance. This physical shift from history further highlights the contrast between Elizabeth and the blonde McTeer, whose Mary is far more exuberant and sensual than history would have us believe. The play never strays too far from the truth, however, as Elizabeth’s impossible quandary and Mary’s ultimately fatal inability to keep her mouth shut at opportune moments are both delicately sketched.
It would not be giving too much away to suggest that it doesn’t end happily for Mary, but both women, by the end of the production, are examples of how power can destroy and of how both queens are “Slaves to their status”. The decision to dress them in Elizabethan robes, while the men wear 20th century suits, serves to visually illustrate how far apart they are from the rest of the world. At the very end, these robes take even more significance. Mary, taking her final walk toward eternal freedom, wears the bright red of a Catholic cardinal. Elizabeth is left alone wearing drab black.
For more information about Mary Stuart, click here for our interview with Janet McTeer.
To buy tickets for Mary Stuart, click here.
MA / TB