Monarchy and death are integral to one another. The nature of hereditary governance means that a new King or Queen usually only succeeds to the role they’ve prepared their whole lives for on the death of a parent. A monarch’s reign begins with grief and ends in death, but rarely have living monarchs had the destiny of a foreign displaced ruler in their hands. Schiller’s Mary Stuart details one such occasion, and probably history’s most famous example – when deposed Scottish Queen Mary sought refuge in England but was kept prisoner for 19 years by her royal cousin Elizabeth I.
Schiller’s play, now over 200 years old, has only limited claims to authenticity and his preference for telling Mary’s side of the story is clear, yet there is plenty of nuance to keep dramatists happy. Previous lauded productions have emphasised the difference between the two Queens, while in the Almeida’s new version, it is their similarities and entwined destinies that are played up. The historical record partially supports both interpretations, although more recent scholarship has tended to celebrate Elizabeth’s ability to put duty before her personal needs.
The conceit of Robert Icke’s new version is that the lead roles are played by both Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams, decided in ceremony at the start of each performance by the toss of a coin. Destiny decides who is who each day, and we are asked to accept that Elizabeth and Mary could so easily have known each other’s fate. And within that context of the play and in history that is true… to a point.
At the start, both Queens process to the stage from the rear stalls while John Light as the Earl of Leicester – the man, in Schiller’s partially fabricated account, who is caught between them – spins a coin, and as soon as it falls everything swing into action. In the version I saw, Williams played Mary and it is with her that we spend much of the early part of the play. Ever a magnet for plots and schemes, the narrative hinges on the extent to which Mary knew or even instigated any of them, and whether Elizabeth as a fellow monarch had any right to take her life for it, even when such machinations threatened her own.
It is clear enough in Schiller’s writing, and consequently in Icke’s staging, that Elizabeth is a monster and Mary largely a poor victim of her merciless royal cousin. While production values and performance are high, it is difficult not to be a little disappointed that there wasn’t more ambiguity in the relationship between these two women, which is one of the main reasons they continue to fascinate us. Should Elizabeth be condemned for ending Mary’s life when there was considerable circumstantial proof that Mary had repeatedly tried to deprive Elizabeth of hers?
There are throw-away comments about the nature of the two Queens, with Mary giving herself over repeatedly to her femininity and multiple lovers which leads to acts of betrayal, while Elizabeth flirted and cajoled but ultimately jettisoned an ordinary personal life to maintain stability and loyalty in a kingdom riven by religious wars and factions for more than 20 years prior to her accession. And there is much that could be made of these nuances in a production that seems to favour Mary’s cause.
Part of that is down to Lia Williams’s dominating performance as the calculating and martyred Mary. The audience never quite knows if she is playing them – is she genuinely an innocent in these plots, is she the centre of a very tangled web, or perhaps she has just convinced herself that she’s not responsible? Clearly Schiller and Icke tilt the action in her favour but Williams grasps the opportunity the playwright offers to display a range of interesting emotions from regret for her lasciviousness and involvement in the murder and downfall of her former husbands, to outrage at the prolonged confinement as a political refugee and barely concealed glee at the thought of taking her cousin’s place, as well as utilisation of her fervent Catholic faith in “proving” herself innocent of the plots against Elizabeth.
Yet, the rest of the production, thought simply staged, doesn’t quite match up to these ambiguities. It takes a while for Elizabeth and her court to appear and there seems considerably less emphasis on understanding her motivation in the context of her reign. Stripped of all circumstance, Elizabeth becomes someone who grants asylum to her unnamed heir, imprisons her for nearly two decades and is led by ‘evil counsellors’ to grant her rival’s execution largely out of jealousy.
But if you put the circumstances back in, then Elizabeth’s position becomes more sympathetic and even understandable – something this production doesn’t fully acknowledge. By the time of this play, 1587, Elizabeth had been Queen for 30 years, making her and Mary in their 50s (and thus much older than Schiller suggests). During that time she had balanced the extreme religious divisions that saw England become first virtually puritan and then fanatically Catholic in the 10 years of her siblings’ reigns, as well as constant questions about her legitimacy, marriageability and skill in managing a dissenting aristocracy, divisions Elizabeth had carefully navigated for three decades. The arrival of Mary Queen of Scots on English soil, a deposed Catholic from a rival power linked to the murder of her own husband and years of poor decision-making, was a huge and complicated problem for the English monarch that could only inflame various divisions in her own realm. Protect her or remove her, the consequences were significant; Elizabeth was damned if she did and damned if she didn’t.
These are aspect Schiller overlooks and Icke’s production barely references. Juliet Stevenson gives us some of Elizabeth’s indecisiveness, her famous prevarication, anger and recrimination but not much of her heart. In part one, she paces and frowns, in part two she becomes hysterical, it’s undoubtedly what Schiller wants but it’s not all there is to the character. For a story that’s almost entirely about power-play this is curiously wordy and slow at times. In over three hours reams of dialogue and an occasional confusion of characters slacken what should be a dangerous pace, and where Elizabeth could be seen to be rushed into a decision by urgency, here that is a more leisurely feel.
The surrounding cast are fine with Vincent Franklin as Burleigh giving sage advice but with a nod to the longstanding rivalry with John Light’s Leicester – a character who is actually much maligned by Schiller in this play. For a very long time the Earl of Leicester’s reputation was diabolical, a man thought to have murdered his own wife to try and marry his Queen and was blamed for many of the ills of Elizabethan England. This was very much the man Schiller presented in 1800, whereas in recent times historians have restored Leicester’s reputation and done much to prove the allegations against him were largely groundless.
Nonetheless he is a driving force in this play as the man between the two Queens and John Light gives a compelling and highly engaging performance that adds drama to any scene in which he appears. In truth Leicester was absent from the country for most of the years around Mary’s execution, serving in the Netherlands and unlikely to have had as decisive a hand in events as Schiller depicts. Rather than playing both women, Leicester had tired of Elizabeth’s decades of dithering and married Lettice Knollys in 1578 so the fervent sexual connection suggested here between Elizabeth and Leicester would have long gone off the boil. Likewise the character of Mortimer who seeds and enacts the final plot to remove Elizabeth and replace her with Mary is entirely the author’s creation.
With a fair amount of critical approval for this role-swapping production and expectations consequently high, it was difficult not to be a little underwhelmed in the end by the too clear-cut approach to heroes and villains that the production takes. Although history and drama needn’t accord, and central performances aside, the production felt like a missed opportunity to present a more complex picture of Mary’s execution.
It may seem strange to have included so much comparison with history in a theatre review, but when the central premise of this production is that Mary and Elizabeth could so easily have had the other’s fate – a conclusion drawn not entirely from the text alone – I was not convinced that was true. Besides their royal status and lineage, the production doesn’t fully makes the case for their interchangeability; Mary was full of human weakness, now remembered more for the manner of her death than even the scandals that took her there, while Elizabeth’s dealings with Mary were one aspect of a 45 year reign that marked her as one of England’s most successful monarchs. The Almeida’s version of Schiller’s play is decent enough, but the truth is so much more interesting.
Mary Stuart is at the Almeida until 21 January. Tickets are mostly sold out but extra tickets are released often from £10.