Mary Stuart is a play that was originally written by Friedrich Schiller and has since been adapted by dramaturg Rob Icke who also directed this performance. With design and costume by Hildegard Bechtler it really is an admirable piece of theatre that has tension flowing from the moment that the actors walk on stage. It stars Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams who take part in a coin toss at the beginning of each performance to determine whether they will play the title role or Elizabeth I. This tension created at this moment leaves the audience in silence as they are eager to know the result. I am lucky enough to have seen it both ways round, although I will be focusing on Juliet Stevenson as Elizabeth and Lia Williams as Mary Stuart as this is the performance I most recently saw at the Duke of York’s Theatre.
The play is based on Mary Queen of Scots life and is set within 24 hours. It includes scenes within her jail cell and run up to the moment at which we see her death. The play includes a fictional moment as well when she meets with Elizabeth I who is currently on the English throne which is where Mary wishes to end up. It weaves through many exciting moments and although a fair amount of dramatic licence is used, the plot stays alongside the true events.
The stage at the Duke of York’s Theatre matches that of the Almeida stage; a large concreate wall has been built as the backdrop. This helps to conserve the original rawness of the production and makes sure that the intimacy is not lost during this transfer to a proscenium arch stage. The bareness of the production puts a certain pressure on the quality of acting, but this pays off with passion from every actor on stage. The costumes also provide a crucial part of the play, with the immediate differentiation between the two queens who enter identical being one leaves without shoes, a jacket and a ring. This moment of violence that Lia Williams went through is seen to make her feel weaker as Mary, Queen of Scots. The distinction created through the use of costumes for other actors make some characters’ traits seem clearer. This is particularly visible through Mortimer, who is wearing a purple suit which both matches his Catholic faith and loyalty to Mary, who he believes is the rightful queen. Many Lords are seen in darker clothing to reflect their alliance to Queen Elizabeth, yet one is dressed in a lighter colour which stands out to the audience. This suggests a support towards jailed Mary Stuart.
The cast is made up by a group of strong actors. Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams are at the heart of the piece and make it a gripping piece of theatre. Stevenson creates a powerful yet desperate portrayal of Queen Elizabeth whereas Lia’s determined and weakened performance of Mary is equally impressive. Even though they have little direct interaction, moments of meeting on stage are met with silence from the audience who are all on the edges of their seats. Other notable performances are Rudi Dharmalingam as Mortimer, who shines throughout with a particularly sinister nature to his nuanced characterisation. Elliot Levey’s smug facial expressions often add in droplets of humour to an otherwise pensive piece. I apologise to the many actors I have failed to mention in my brief overview because they were all superb and managed to show their importance.
The overall feel of the play was brilliant; I could easily say there was no weak link from actors, to technical aspects, to creative team. This is the Almeida Theatre at its finest and the theatre responded by a large proportion of the audience giving a standing ovation. I would recommend battling your way to either Salford or Cambridge if at all possible to see this majestic production. Personally, I would say it is the best thing I have seen on stage. Congratulations to the cast and crew in creating such a memorable and magnificent production.