This review of Mary Stuart was written by Cliff Greely and first appeared in Offbeat News, The Company of Players’ (CoPs) bi-monthly newsletter.
Mary, Queen of Scots cuts a fascinating figure in our history. By all accounts a woman of great beauty and incredibly gifted, she lived in turbulent times, the victim both of circumstances beyond her control and of her own flawed judgment.
The story of her life is truly amazing. She was made queen within a week of her birth, was married three times by the age of 26 and was implicated in the death of her second husband, Darnley. Two hectic years later, she was imprisoned by Queen Elizabeth at Fotheringhay Castle where she was to be incarcerated for years until her execution. It all reads like a lurid historical novel. We can readily imagine a blood and guts treatment of her story by a brave Jacobean dramatist or its presentation in a psychological thriller by a present day playwright.
In the event, it was left to Friedrich Schiller, who has given us a treatment very much the product of his own 18th century time. His play focuses on the last few days and hours of Mary’s life and has at its core the imagined meeting of the two queens in the grounds of Fotheringhay Castle. He explores at great length the similarities and differences of their situations and characters and the concerns of those in contact with them. It is relatively static and slow moving.
Could CoPs bring renewed life to this German classic and involve us in issues from the remote past? That it largely succeeded in holding our attention is a tribute to the strong acting of the experienced cast and to the clarity of their performance. To secure our involvement in the action, the director opted for two principal strategies. Firstly, the drama was played out on a largely bare acting area with the audience on three sides, which created a sense of intimacy between player and onlooker.
Secondly, all the cast, with the exception of the three principal characters in Tudor costume, wore “grey suits” of our own time. Whether this achieved its presumed objective of making the play more relevant is debatable. A recently much acclaimed production in the West End had all the cast in modern dress and was widely praised for the implicit suggestion that the play’s exploration of 16th century political intrigue has an unnerving currency in the world of today. However, for this commentator, the inevitable anachronisms that arise when, for example, a Tudor queen is addressing someone who looks like a commuter who has just arrived at Hertford North was an unwelcome distraction.
Julia Ryan, in the title role, gave us a veritable tour de force which was totally convincing. The passionate intensity of her hopes and fears so vividly expressed in the disastrous meeting with her cousin, Elizabeth, were present throughout. Other particularly compelling moments were her expression of joyous relief when, after the interval, she was allowed out into the relative freedom of the park, and the sincerity she evinced when making her confession shortly before going to the scaffold. This portrait gained enormously from the magnificent support provided by Jan Palmer Sayer as her nurse, Hanna, fierce in defence of her mistress both from her enemies and herself.
As Elizabeth, Rosamund Barnes initially gave us a most effective foil to Mary, very much in command in the early scene with the French deputation. However, as the action progressed, she gradually revealed a personality plagued by self-doubt and procrastination. This was an interpretation full of light and shade which darkened as her ruthlessness became ever more apparent.
Andy Lee gave a convincing performance in the role of Sir Amias Paulet, Mary’s guardian, a hard taskmaster but also a man of principle who refused to be intimidated by Lord Burleigh (Mel Powell), a Machiavellian bully boy for whom the end justified the means whatever the human cost. Des Turner as Talbot, Elizabeth’s elder statesman, particularly impressed as a shrewd and quick-thinking adviser to the queen, who was thoroughly disillusioned by the turn of events at the end.
The two remaining main roles are possibly the most challenging in the play. According to Schiller, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (Gavin Palmer) has been enamoured of both queens but has he really or is he totally self-seeking? Gavin Palmer certainly brought out the black side of his character but how he has ensnared both their affections remains a mystery. Sir Mortimer (Laurence Lowe), the young convert to fundamentalism or Catholicism according to the script, gave us a character who was frighteningly persuasive but his real motivation remained in doubt until his suicide. For me both actors did their best with enigmatic character roles.
The minor characters were portrayed well but the choice of a woman priest giving absolution to Mary in 16th century dress illustrated the problems arising from the mixture of Tudor and modern dress.
The production built to a brilliantly staged and deeply moving climax when Mary threw off her sombre cloak to reveal a scarlet and white habit in which she slowly revolved with arms outstretched before retiring to her martyrdom signified by a flush of red projected on the backdrop. Shortly after, we were left with the final image of Elizabeth in similar posture, totally isolated. In this great battle of wills, who was the victim and who was the winner?
The director and cast are to be congratulated on an ambitious production which featured ensemble acting of the highest calibre. In its presentation of the story of two powerful women contending for the highest stakes in a man’s world, we were reminded how effectively the past can illuminate the present.
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