| By Laura Franek
Heads. In a snatched breath, Lia Williams casts her lot to play Elizabeth I for the evening. A coin is tossed, screens around the auditorium zoom in and the audience leans forward. Tails. Fate has spoken, the ensemble turn and bow deeply to Juliet Stevenson, and Williams is led offstage to imprisonment as the performance of Mary Stuart begins.
Following a critically acclaimed, sell-out season at the Almeida Theatre in 2016 – 2017, Mary Stuart now finds a new home at the Duke of York’s Theatre before embarking on a UK tour. First performed in Germany in 1800, Friedrich Schiller’s play follows the last days of Mary, Queen of Scots’ imprisonment in Fotheringhay Castle, for allegedly plotting to kill Elizabeth I in a bid for her throne. This production, adapted and directed by Robert Icke, is pacey, gripping, and at times breathtaking, which is no easy feat for a three and a quarter hour long play.
This is a raw and stripped back production which lays bare the political and emotional conundrums of each character, whispering through the ages to feel incredibly modern. Dress too is modern; the cast are in grey suits or simple dresses, whilst Elizabeth and Mary are dressed identically in black velvet suits and silky white shirts. Their parallels are clear to see. We’re seamlessly lead through the twists and turns of ever more circular arguments, as the audience teeters between exasperation and commiseration for the fateful journey these two sisters find themselves on.
It is hard to know who is more trapped; Mary in her cell, Elizabeth in her court or the audience enraptured by the house of cards toppling in front of them. Hildegard Bechtler’s simple and stoic design encircles the action, the bare brickwork and revolving wooden centre spinning slowly as an ominous merry-go-round, constantly reminding us how close these two are; two sides of one coin. Laura Marling’s beautiful and haunting music that was specially composed for this production strums poignantly beneath the action, echoing the beat of Mary’s ever-patient heart.
Supported by some stunning performances from the ensemble, Mary Stuart is an absolute must-see twice over, not only to discover the contrasts of Marys from Stevenson and Williams. The famously imagined scene where Elizabeth I and Mary meet is heart stopping. Their outstretched hands reach across stage and through the ages, taking a hold of your heart and mind, and don’t let go even after you leave the theatre.