Mary Stuart is the second production of a Schiller play to reach Shaftesbury Avenue this year, following on from Michael Grandage’s tense and compelling Don Carlos. And, having already been a sell out success at the Donmar Warehouse, it arrives like Don Carlos on a wave of critical excitement and complimentary reviews.
Directing a new translation of the text by Peter Oswald, Phyllida Lloyd makes the interesting decision to clad rival queens, Mary and Elizabeth, in period costume while their male courtiers float about in sharp suits. This has the effect of highlighting the similarities between the two women, picking out the parallels in their situations. Mary is the one held prisoner in Fotheringay Castle but Elizabeth too is constricted by the expectations heaped upon her and the machinations of the men around her.
The action plays out against a minimal black brick backdrop, with Hugh Vanstone’s inspired use of lighting giving shape and shade to each scene. The first half drags in places but it is paving the way towards the big – fictional – confrontation between the two women on the grounds of Fotheringay (like the showdown in Michael Mann’s Heat only with sixteenth century frocks). This exchange takes places in a rainstorm, Mary soaked to the skin, Elizabeth sheltered by umbrellas, and is as highly charged as hoped for. This is also the first time I’ve seen it rain on stage and it was pretty impressive (though having a sopping wet set for the rest of the evening had predictable implications for the cast and there was the odd skidding incident).
The production is blessed with two strong central performances. As Mary, Janet McTeer plausibly veers between passion and anger, grace and acceptance, growing in dignity. Smoky of voice and vaguely Amazonian, McTeer is an impressive stage presence and though she does at times indulge in the odd bit of ‘hand-acting,’ she is a joy to watch.
Harriet Walter has a harder job as the conflicted Elizabeth. Initially suitably regal, she is also strangely flirtatious at times and has moments of girlish indecision (and, most alarmingly, on occasions gives off a disconcerting air of Margaret Thatcher in her speech and mannerisms). The play continually undermines Elizabeth, as a queen and as a woman, and yet, to Walter’s credit, she is not a completely unsympathetic figure.
The supporting cast is also a strong one with Guy Henry’s Leicester standing out amongst the men. Anthony Ward’s design is a muted palette of blacks and browns so that, towards the end, when Mary reveals a scarlet gown it has maximum visual impact. But for all that it does well, Lloyd’s production has a chilly quality, it just doesn’t grip and dazzle in the same manner as Grandage’s Don Carlos. McTeer and Walter do excellent work but though Mary Stuart offers plenty to admire it remains difficult to engage with.