Mary Stuart artfully shows Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart as two sides of the same coin; in fact, a coin toss at the beginning of each performance decides who will play each of the two roles. The gesture is more than a novelty and sets the tone for a play in which these principal characters continuously overlap.
When I saw Mary Stuart, Juliet Stevenson played the role of Elizabeth, with Lia Williams in the title role. Both were stunning, and I really felt that I could get inside their characters' minds. This play may be set in a historical context, but its characters are vivid and relevant.
Part of this must also be credited to the way in which modern issues like gender are at the forefront of the play; it's impossible to detach.
Mary Stuart is rich in complexity, but it isn't bogged down, and the pace is good. Even so, this is a fundamentally tense and intense play, and I can understand why some may prefer a more upbeat production.
If you're looking for a play to sink your teeth into, you can catch Mary Stuart at London's Duke of York's Theatre until the end of March, or on tour in April.