Monday, 29 January 2018
Mary Stuart at Duke of York's Theatre
In Robert Icke’s adaptation of Schiller’s Mary Stuart at The Duke of York’s Theatre, Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth 1 are interchangeable – literally – because Juliette Stevenson and Lia Williams know both parts. The decision as to what part they will play on any particular night is down to the toss of a coin at the beginning of the production, the result of which is portrayed in close-up via a video screen. Clever or gimmicky? Definitely the latter, because it ultimately highlights that destiny can change in the blink of an eye and that the two women are arguably two sides of the same coin. One Catholic, the other Protestant but when it boils down, both imprisoned by the circumstances of their birth. Just a cruel twist of fate enabled one to become the first famous English monarch and the other to suffer at the hands of an executioner.
On the night I saw this excellent production, it was down to Juliet Stevenson to portray the doomed Mary. Because each actor had their own separate rehearsals, each one portrays each character differently, whether in mannerism or bits of business. The one abiding similarity is their look. Hildegard Bechtler has dressed both actresses in matching velvet trouser suits and white shirts, which, along with their short hair likens them to identical twins. They even appear to walk as one when approaching the stage on either side at the start, before facing one another as if looking into a mirror.
This arresting production started life at The Almeida at the back end of 2016, so Stevenson and Williams have had plenty of time to inhabit both roles. This they do with aplomb. The play itself centres around an imaginary meeting between the two women. One showing an uneasy command as a reigning monarch, the other with the unerring composure of a blue-blooded would-be queen eventually accepting what fate has in store. Whether or not this fate is the worst outcome is questioned at the end of the play when Elizabeth is stripped of her androgynous garb and laced into the trappings of period costume, along with ruff, wig and make-up. Exhibited thus, she is ready for the rest of her life to be played out in private isolation and public scrutiny, whilst Mary, stripped down to simple shift, is finally on her way to lasting contentment. She, the Scottish queen with a heart, will no longer have to deal with worldly problems and woes. This is all played out to the background melancholy refrain of a song by Laura Marling, so bravo to her and Paul Arditti, the Sound Designer.
As expected, there is much political argument within the play, but Director, Icke, after the initial solemn coin tossing, makes sure the action ratchets up a notch or three, with both actresses often encircling each other as predator after its kill. Their declamations have the light and shade needed to hold the audience in their thrall and although everyone is aware of the outcome, Mary Stuart’s death is still a body blow.
My only wish is to see these two brilliant actresses inhabit the other role