Friday, 16 December 2016
Review Mary Stuart
by Friedrich Schiller
A New Adaptation by Robert Icke
A Matter of Speculation
It starts with the spin of a coin. The same trick as the matches in the RSC's Dr Faustus but this time cast in female mode with a coin - the decision of who gets to play victor Queen and who gets to play victim Queen. Except in its sober suited arena, a modern political court, in all senses of the word, the role of the coin, of currency adds a contemporary sense of the precarious.
We must confess (it's not a beheading offence!), we'd heard but never read or seen Friedrich Schiller's 1800 verse play, so we bring an eye unversed in other versions. On press night, the resonant "Heads" meant that Juliet Stevenson undertook the role of unwed Elizabeth I and Lia Williams that of the thrice-married and widowed doomed Catholic Scottish Royal, both with short hair, mirroring each other in matching silk shirts and trouser suits.
This is a deft production - a male cabinet government led by a woman, who knows exactly when to glance into the mirror of her compact, takes measured and then increasingly agitated steps across the round wooden stage to spindly metal benches at its edge (set and costumes Hildegard Bechtler).
The curved brick walls of the Almeida both serve as the prison of Mary and enclose the machinations of Elizabeth's court. Screens chart the compressed time line with a rumbling soundscape in the background (sound Paul Arditti). Director Robert Icke's verse adaptation has an admirable clarity and the modern references are sparse and judicious.
Elfin Mary has been incarcerated with her maid Hanna (Carmen Munroe) for nearly 20 years, having enchanted one jailor (Alan Williams with an old Labourite "This House" vibe) , she must start once again with his more rigid, worried replacement (Sule Rimi).
Her calculations in the world of flux, where she ended up by accident not design on Britain's shores, mean she claims the legal status of modern international victim rather than nationalist political power player. Nonethless, unlike Elizabeth, she was recognized as legitimate and a Queen from her birth.
Schiller, a Protestant republican in a then patchwork of royal and ducal German states, had lived through the age of the American Independence and the hope, then terror of revolution in neighbouring France, providing a power vacuum for Napoleon's rise.
So we were interested to see Schiller's take on a turbulent piece of British history. or rather English and Scottish history. As a whole, the Almeida Mary Stuart is lucid and gripping, but in an arc where the faults, foibles and humanity in the two women are kept mostly binary.
There are flashes of anger, unruly emotions rising up in the two women, which feel dangerous and reckless. The reluctance of the more dry Elizabeth to be directly connected through paperwork and action to Mary's death slices through the centuries to current times.The reminders that Mary is a younger, more attractive model.
But we are looking in on life and death issues turned into a political thriller where the parliamentary career politics of our time somewhat overwhelms the differences between the women.
So it is the fictitious character of unstable Mortimer (Rudi Dharmalingam), introduced by Schiller as the nephew of Mary's jailor, who injects a rush of passion into this version. And it is because of him that we feel most keenly the manic flipside, focussed on the female body, of the cool conspiring male court. His character also felt to us the most successful nexus of age old and modern concerns.
The subtle choreographed movement, the exaggerated courtly bows, the increasing theatricality to mask political manoevres and executions are visceral and resonant. And reticence and accuracy are no protection as courtier Davison (David Jonsson) discovers.
Visually the move from the illusion of rational cabinet government to a masque dictatorship, where the familiar trappings of the Virgin Queen nevertheless indicate powerlessness rather than power, is another nimble piece of staging, even if we weren't convinced by the accompanying song.
We, of course, only saw one configuration of the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth. And our appetite is now whetted to see other interpretations of the same play. We give an amber/green light for a modern dress Schiller thriller which proved thought-provoking and multi-faceted for our first encounter with the German playwright.