Mary Stuart is an imaginative interpretation of her and Queen Elizabeth 1’s lives using a stripped back set and contemporary 21st-century clothing. The addition of spinning a coin at the beginning heightens the tension and arguably the rivalry as no one knows whether Juliet Stevenson or Lia Williams will be Queen Elizabeth I or Mary Stuart.
Robert Icke’s excellent adaptation and the cast’s superb acting mean that although the script is written in verse, it sounds natural, particularly as the actors use the rhythms and speech patterns of everyday conversation. The emotionally bruising face-off between Williams’ Mary Stuart and Stevenson’s QEI is an unpredictable battle, even though we know the history.The actors’ body language, tone of voice and the sharp dialogue allow us to perceive their emotions and thoughts. The two Queens use their intelligence, passion and hatred to try to manipulate each other. At one point they descend into trading cruel insults.The power dynamic between them constantly changes and so do the audience’s allegiances; with each blow and parry they reveal their vulnerability, anger, strength and self-righteousness. In the end, they are each hurt by their exhausting encounter.
I was excited by the politics, the psychology and the Machiavellian plotting of the Queens, their advisers and allies, which makes Mary Stuart like a contemporary political psychological thriller.
Each character has a great deal of depth. The fervour and zealotry of the newly converted Catholic, Mortimer, is fantastically portrayed by Rudi Dharmalingam, who has become a double agent for Mary Stuart. His youthful exuberance turns creepy, he is like Mary Stuart’s stalker. The complexity of QEI’s character is organically revealed by Stevenson. Her Queen is a fascinating contradiction of power and vulnerability, charm and tyranny, intelligence and gullibility. When she deludes herself that she is forced to sign Mary Stuart’s death warrant but isn’t responsible for making the decision, it is an amazing mixture of humour, anguish and menace. Williams’ Mary Stuart is a survivor, full of passion for life, perhaps too romantic she is tempered by the no-nonsense Handmaid, Hannah Kennedy, brilliantly played by Carmen Munroe.
There are also various humorous moments, including when John Light as Lord Leicester convinces Queen Elizabeth that he was acting as her double agent to protect her from Mary Stuart’s plot to kill her.
The ultimate shift in power is symbolically presented when the servants dress QEI in regal sixteenth-century clothing, whilst Mary Stuart is stripped for her execution.
Robert Icke’s Mary Stuart tickets are available now until the end of the run at the Duke of York’s Theatre March 31, 2018.
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