Friedrich Schiller’s historical drama is unusual for its time (circa 1800) in that its principal antagonists are women.
But his Mary Stuart is a long way from being a proto-feminist play. His subjects were mighty but it’s his courtier men that do much of the talking.
Kate Mulvany’s retelling of the story (“after” Schiller) dispenses with the original’s five-act structure, a couple of characters and long-windedness to present a more focused and individually distinctive portrait of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and her cousin Elizabeth I. It also amplifies the idea that these women are more than rivals for power and icons of their battling faiths. In a world in which the regal and the divine are one, Mary is Elizabeth’s only true mirror, and vice-versa. Without the other, each is truly alone.
A bleakly powerful set designed by Elizabeth Gadsby, its walls pierced by high-set windows, serves as Elizabeth’s court in London and as the prison cell in which Mary (Caroline Brazier) serves out her sentence for conspiring to murder her husband. She’s been locked away for 19 years and she’s terminally ill, yet she still nurses hope for release.
Elizabeth (Helen Thomson), meanwhile, is being urged to finally put an end to the challenge to her reign that Mary’s existence embodies. She, too, is a prisoner, having known little beyond the gilded cage of her rank.
Cousin is curious about cousin. The possibility of reconciliation seems there. But Mary’s fate is sealed by the actions of an ardent young regicide, Mortimer (Fayssal Bazzi). From that point on, Mary’s release can only come at the headsman’s block.
You don’t have to be a history wonk to find the story absorbing. Mulvany’s portraiture is warm and revealing and her irreverent tone playfully undercuts any tendency toward historical pageantry. At times, she can make your jaw drop: “You want to put your cunt on my throne,” snarls Elizabeth to Mary in a pivotal scene that brings the two women into the same frame.
That scene is a masterstroke. In the original, Schiller engineers a face-to-face meeting. Here, the encounter emerges like a dream from the drunken aftermath of a masked ball and a recounting of the Greek myth of Echo. Schiller’s speculative what-if scene becomes a window into Elizabeth’s soul.
Lee Lewis’s production (one she inherited from Imara Savage, to whom credit must be due for some of the fundamentals of this staging) has an appealing emotional breadth to it. There’s violence (the show is bookended by hair-raising sound cues), bitterness, and the harshness of women’s lives at that time is always apparent. But there’s a broad streak of humour, too. Thomson is often hilarious, lighting up a ribald side to Elizabeth. I wasn’t the only one reminded of Miranda Richardson’s petulant queen in Blackadder II. Brazier brings warmth to the role of Mary. She’s devout, she’s brave, but she’s also funny, and wise. She’s anything, in fact, but a straight up martyr.
Warmth and humour are also apparent in Peter Carroll’s touching portrayal of Shrewsbury, Elizabeth’s ancient retainer, and in Simon Burke’s Paulet, Mary’s gout-stricken friend and jailer. Matthew Whittet strikes poncey poses as Aubespine, the French ambassador.
Darker notes are struck by the Machiavellian Burleigh (Tony Cogin) and the devoted but self-serving Leicester (Andrew McFarlane). Rahel Romahn is very good as Davison, the hapless scribe forever asking, “should I be taking this down?”
Mary Stuart is a rich and satisfying work of theatre and more proof – were it needed after The Harp in the South – that Mulvany is a stellar talent.