The Theatreguide.London Review
The tale of Elizabeth I and Mary of Scotland has fascinated historians and writers for 400 years, and Friedrich Schiller's 1800 drama, here in a new version by Peter Oswald, captures all the complexities of history, character and drama.
If, in the process, it's a bit talkier than some plays - people rarely have conversations, but take turns making speeches at each other - it is still powerful and the vehicle for a uniformly excellent cast.
The basic situation, for those who missed that day in history class, is that the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots actually had at least as good a claim to the English throne as Elizabeth, so that when she made the mistake of crossing the border, Elizabeth put her under house arrest and eventually had her executed.
The dramatic interest comes from the fact that the women were first cousins, that killing a queen was a precedent Elizabeth did not want to set, that the women had very different personalities, and that the larger geopolitical and religious context significantly complicated things.
The central dramatic problem is that the two never met face to face, a detail that Schiller, like just about every other writer re-imagining the story, can't resist changing.
We find Mary in prison, having just been convicted of plotting against Elizabeth (She probably was guilty, though Schiller makes her innocent in this specific case), with Elizabeth's advisors pushing her toward ordering the execution. A plot to save Mary involves talking Elizabeth into meeting her, but the interview goes sour, Mary is executed, and Elizabeth is left to deal with the consequences.
As a play, it obviously rests on the shoulders of the two central actresses, and it is hard to imagine better than Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer. McTeer at first seems too robust and domineering as Mary, in a Vanessa Redgrave sort of way, and her moments of despair or weakness don't quite ring true. But in her rages, her passions and her final dying-with-dignity she is almost overpowering. Again the comparison to Redgrave is likely to come up in your mind; she even begins to sound like her - and I say that, not to imply imitation, but as the highest praise..
Harriet Walter has a much less showy role as the somewhat repressed Elizabeth, but she quietly allows us to glimpse the woman's sometimes paradoxical complexity. An almost de-sexed political icon, she is finally won over to the meeting by an appeal to her vanity (See for yourself that you're more beautiful than she), and it is she who cracks first as the encounter descends to a catfight (You're ugly - Your mother's a whore). And then, in ordering the execution, she shows yet another side of herself, cruelly manipulating her officers to protect her own deniability.
But this isn't a two-character play, and one of the quiet delights of the production is how uniformly and almost matter-of-factly excellent everyone else is. Barbara Jefford as Mary's loyal companion, James Fleet as her honourable jailor, David Horovitch as Elizabeth's ultimate-civil-servant advisor Burleigh, and Rory Kinnear and Guy Henry as two men playing, for their own reasons, as double agents whose true allegiance takes a while to become clear - all deliver the goods with a total professionalism that is a pleasure to watch.
I've frequently said that when everyone in a show is bad, it's the director's fault. When everyone is uniformly and compatibly excellent, much of the credit must go to director Phyllida Lloyd.
It's long, and it is talky, and - in what may be a rare directorial slip - it ends with a literal whimper rather than a bang. It occasionally risks becoming more a lesson in history and realpolitik than a drama. But even at those moments it is never less than engrossing.
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