North London's Almeida Theatre has become the centre of theatrical gravity, in every sense, in town. Hot on the heels of its West End transfer of James Graham's Ink, now Robert Icke's taut, grippingly urgent production of Schiller's Mary Stuart follows it into the same Duke of York's Theatre.
This is also, coincidentally, the theatre where both of its stars Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams - who share the title role of the exiled Scottish Queen, and that of the English monarch Elizabeth I who holds her captive, alternating the roles at each performance based on the spin of a coin - made early bids for theatrical stardom when they transferred from the Royal Court in the original London productions of Death and the Maiden and David Mamet's Oleanna respectively in the early 90s.
Now here they are, over 25 years later, and both offering mesmerising confirmation of that early promise. Not that regular theatregoers need have been in any doubt: both have also starred in other Robert Icke Almeida productions recently of Hamlet and Oresteia respectively, again in productions that also transferred to the West End's Pinter and Trafalgar Studios each.
That's just one of the thrills of the British theatre: how creative partnerships are made, grow and endure from production to production. And this one, first seen at the Almeida at the end of 2016 and now belatedly transferring to the West End (with some changes to the supporting cast), it has them all at the top of their considerable form.
At the Almeida, I saw the show twice over on the same day so I could see both stars play each role - six gripping hours that revealed different yet complementary textures to each. But for the West End transfer, I allowed the gods of chance to decide for me who I'd see, which of course is the way most people will experience it. The coin - which is spun under the watchful eye of a camera so that the entire audience can see it transmitted via large TV screens dotted on either side of the auditorium - had Stevenson as a passionate, wilful Mary with Williams as a vulnerable, hesitant Elizabeth.
The stakes could not be higher: one holds the power of life and death over the other. But the procrastinating English monarch's own political future depends on the outcome. As their dangerous dance of death and power plays out, the play turns into an arresting political thriller, full of multiple betrayals and turns of conscience.
It has a sweeping magnificence, and Icke's production is also galvanised by stunning support from Rudi Dharmalingam as Mary's ally Mortimer, Elliot Levey as her persecutor Burleigh and John Light as Leicester, romantically entangled with both women. An unmissable event.
Mary Stuart Tickets are available now.
Photo courtesy Manuel Harlan
What the popular press said...
"Icke achieves hurtling dramatic momentum right from the start of a lengthy evening... The last act, with its chilling closing tableau of loneliness, is devastatingly fine. Magnificent."
Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard (five stars)
"Savour instead the gravity of the story, the striking similarities between Mary and Elizabeth, the historic resonances. At three hours, Mary Stuart is in no way a short evening, but it makes for a richly intellectual spectacle."
Quentin Letts, Daily Mail (five stars)