Review of Mary Stuart at the Almeida Theatre
Sometimes the theatre calendar saves the best till last. And now straight after one of the best musicals of the year Dreamgirls finally opened in London, 35 years after its Broadway premiere, we have one of the year's best play revivals, too, with a magnificently gripping, intense production of Schiller's political thriller Mary Stuart. Originally premiered over 200 years ago, and revolving around events that took place over 500 years ago, it emerges -- in director Robert Icke's new version that he has created himself -- as a compelling study in power play today.
As the Almeida's artistic director Rupert Goold notes in an introduction to the programme, "In the last six months our shores have experienced unfathomable political turbulence in the wake of Brexit and a female leader is in power for the first time since Margaret Thatcher -- a double-edged twist, to be both celebrated and feared. On the other side of the Atlantic, a ferocious power battle has been fought. Misogyny, tyranny, prejudice came head to head, shot through with a deep distrust of the female sex. The theatre of politics has been staged in front of our eyes -- and the results continue to unravel. We see this chaos as an urgent provocation to find answers elsewhere."
And so to Schiller, who imagines a particular moment in English constitutional history when Mary Queen of Scots, seeking refuge in England, finds herself imprisoned instead and accused of plotting to usurp the English Queen, Elizabeth I. Two strong women face off against each other, with intimidating and far-reaching consequences. Modern parallels aren't underlined but implicit, and Icke's production unfolds with the smooth assurance of a contemporary thriller.
Central to it is a meeting that never actually took place between the two monarchs. So, just as the Almeida's previous hit play about English royalty King Charles III imagined a near-future when Charles ascends to the throne and something close to civil war threatens, Schiller's play is a fictionalised version of what could have happened if they had.
Icke also introduces a further theatrical frisson by having the two actors playing the Queens appear as literally interchangeable; a toss of a coin decides which one will play which at the start of each performance. Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson are the bold, brave actors who take on this challenge -- they have to learn both massive roles and go on a three-hour journey with each every night, without scrambling each role.
But beyond the sheer technical challenge, there's great virtuosity in the different nuances and subtleties they bring to each. Though only a handful of theatrical nerds might find themselves compelled to want to see the play in both combinations, I am delighted to be able to count myself amongst them -- not just for the chance to see a great production twice in the same day, but also two actors at the very top of their game as well.
They're each thrilling in both roles: Stevenson the more inscrutably regal, Williams the more conflicted and quixotic. The production offers complexity and detail throughout, with some stunning supporting performances from a brilliant ensemble cast that also includes Rudi Dharmalingam as Mary's ally Mortimer, Vincent Franklin as her persecutor Burleigh and John Light as Leicester, romantically entangled with both women.
What the Press Said...
"Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson switch roles seamlessly at the toss of a coin to play warring queens in Robert Icke’s explosive production."
Susannah Clapp for The Guardian
"I’m a bit 50-50 about it all, then. Should you go? Toss a coin. Heads says yes."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"Icke’s approach combines cerebral rigour with moments of both magical lightness and throbbing intensity. This is an absorbing, dense and resonant three hours of theatre."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard