Serious fun: Mary Stuart from the Almeida
Duke of York’s Theatre
Upper Circle E19, £10
14 March 2018
Theatre can be many things. Robert Icke’s production of Schiller’s Mary Stuart aces a particular category of something that is as entertaining as it is challenging: serious and stimulating, thoughtful and urgent, dramatically spectacular. In his hands Schiller remains dense but becomes deeply rewarding, the results of his meditation on this historical event framed such that they achieve a compelling and entirely unforced relevance to our times.
Icke masterfully ties up fun with seriousness. At several points through the play I had surging misgivings, where I worried that a dramatic gesture was too simplistic and gross for the character of the play. I was too hasty: by the time each gesture had played out it was clear it functioned not only as spectacle but as amplification and continuation of the meaty matters that are the play’s focus.
Take the gimmick of the coin toss, which in each performance determines which of Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams should take the role of Mary and which Elizabeth (I saw Stevenson as Mary). Sure, it’s a ploy to exploit diehard luvvies. But it’s one of a suite of techniques that establishes a parity between the two women that sets them apart from the politicking men around them, and asserts the randomness of their relative situations – both reinforceing essential points of the play, and enhancing the story’s tragedy.
The flip of the coin is echoed in the circular stage area, as the play progresses becoming less like a boxing ring and more like a prison. Elizabeth’s incarceration is finally reinforced with crashing heavy-handedness. But anything less would be inappropriate. Elizabeth has been forced, just as Mary was but the consequences of Elizabeth’s actions are more horrific. She has power but no power, subject to those men because she is queen of them, ruler and yet because a women a target of unconscious contempt.
Inspired use of Elizabethan costume tells us this and even more, achieving a closing stage image that perfectly concludes Icke’s consideration of Schiller. Life for British women is incomparably better now than it was then. But what is left unchanged? Can we ever free ourselves from expectations of others that force action against our natures?
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