Book tickets for Mary Stuart
Set in 1587 and first performed in 1800, Schiller’s Mary Stuart feels bang up to date in the new adaptation by Robert Icke at the Almeida Theatre. Through a re-imagining of the last days of Mary Queen of Scots, it presents a head of government faced with conflicting legal and political pressures, a divided country and uncertainty about the will of the people which all resonates loudly in Brexit Britain.
Although Elizabeth I never met the cousin whose execution she ordered, Schiller’s play has at its heart a secret meeting between the two in the park at Mary’s prison at Fotheringay. It builds steadily to this moment through Act One, where we see Mary still clinging to hopes of escape, and Act Two where Elizabeth and her court wrestle with the complex issues over tackling the threat of a Catholic queen with a rival claim to the English throne. It places the story in a country with a fragile stability after decades of upheaval, where the Protestant regime is fighting the vestiges of Catholicism, fearing terrorist cells in their own country and assassins arriving from abroad, echoing modern fears of Islamist fanatics.
The spectre of the EU referendum is called up in Elizabeth’s concern about knowing the will of the people. While Burleigh later urges the Queen to “obey the people’s voice – it is the voice of God”, she sees a post-truth society where “the way that things appear is what they are and people don’t look deeper, don’t dig down into the complex, double-sided truth of things”.
The meeting between Mary and Elizabeth in Act Three is taut and tense erupting in the two cousins scrapping on the floor – an extra undignified detail not in Schiller’s original. It is then just a matter of time before the tragic conclusion, with Mary going to her death with dignity and Elizabeth alone and abandoned by her allies, morally bankrupt from her refusal to admit responsibility for ordering the execution.
The two queens are played by Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams but, in a unique twist, this production decides who plays which role on the toss of a coin at the start of each performance. It extends the tragedy’s exploration of how much individuals and monarchs have a choice. Both women are pulled along by political expediency and the eddies of history. Mary is seen to be paying for having a passionate nature, most notably in her misjudged love for her murderous ex-husband Bothwell, while Elizabeth feels she is just a “slave” who cannot follow her heart because of the pressures as head of state. “The crown is just a prison cell with jewels,” she says.
When I saw it, Williams played the title role with a steely, feline power, using her body and outstretched arms to exert her presence. Stevenson was equally impressive as a dignified but deeply troubled Elizabeth. As her chief advisor Burleigh, Vincent Franklin combines cool level-headedness with a barely concealed exasperation with his irresolute queen. Strong support also comes from John Light as her faithless favourite Leicester who is ultimately more interested in his own advancement than risking his life.
Robert Icke directs his own adaptation, written in rhythmic unrhyming verse, with clarity and precision, not once letting the tension slacken, enhanced by a brooding soundscape designed by Paul Arditti with composer Laura Marling. The flexible circular stage, devised by Hildegard Bechtler, has a geometric symmetry that matches the dualisms in the play’s content and themes. This production brings out Schiller’s themes in a compelling and lucid way while also being an exciting political thriller and a very personal drama about two women trapped by forces greater than themselves.
Running to January 21