Mary Stuart

Schiller’s revisionist history about the rivalry between the Queen of England and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots frames this historical drama. And what a complex web of political scandal it is!

Schiller’s revisionist history about the rivalry between the Queen of England and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots frames this historical drama. And what a complex web of political scandal it is!

Apparently for Schiller, history is like the drama, namely it’s a series of plots through which character is revealed. Here Elizabeth I (Harriet Walter), queen of England’s Golden Age, is a cunning, paranoid and equivocating monarch. Threatened by Mary Stuart’s influence, her Catholic following, and her perceived attempts at her own assassination, she imprisons Mary in Fotheringhay Castle for 19 years. As portrayed by Janet McTeer, Stuart is a towering character, tall with large expressive hands and a bruised, husky voice, one of royalty that will ultimately succumb to passion. In opposition, Walter’s Elizabeth is a picture of reason and refinement. For her, words are the mallets which she uses to achieve her ends.

Photography: Joan Marcus

Together McTeer and Walter are absolutely transfixing; their performance is an experience of a lifetime. While McTeer surfs the fury of her emotions — diving into the ferocity of her despair, yet coolly confronting her death, Walter holds in the reigns with an iron fist. Only in the end does she face her own duplicity.

Imported from London, this poetically beautiful adaptation by Peter Oswald, “Mary Stuart”, is as probing about human character as it is about the nature of politics. With plots and counterplots as treacherous as those that were brewed at Watergate, the intrigue keeps you hanging onto the edge of your seat! Deception, illusion and appearances are juxtaposed with reality. What unfolds is a perversion of justice, as in “Macbeth” where “foul is fair and fair is foul”. Schiller’s play, written in 1800, but set in the period when Shakespeare wrote, reiterates the Bard’s dramatic preoccupation.

More importantly, the historical conflict between Mary Stuart’s Catholicism and Elizabeth’s Protestantism can be seen as a foreshadowing of today’s decimation all in the name of god. The issue, expressed by the queen’s counselor Lord Burleigh, “God is speaking through the people” recalls the W era. Portrayed by Nicholas Woodeson, Burleigh is the pugnacious white-haired statesman who drives Elizabeth’s crimes and misdemeanors. He is matched by John Benjamin Hickey as the Earl of Leicester. As duplicitous as a snake oil salesman and just as treacherous, he captures the hearts of both queens. And Brian Murray makes a welcome return to Broadway as the Earl of Shrewsbury, a voice of reason amidst the din of liars and hypocrites. The men here are like a hall of mirrors through which the queens are alternately revealed and distorted.

Artfully directed by Phyllida Lloyd, the events sprint from plots of assassination to the final beheading, from a casket of letters to an onstage suicide. Anthony Ward’s minimalist setting lends an air of austerity. A black brick wall remains in the background, even in the apocryphal garden scene where Mary Stuart dances in the torrential rain. That’s where Elizabeth dryly confronts her, the queen in her elegant black and gold gown and Stuart in her gray prison garb, now drenched.

Costumed (also by Ward), the politicians, all of them men, appear in contemporary suits. The contrast depicts not only the sexist manipulation of women, even women of power, it also presents the theater of history as a kind of posturing. The political events which history reports are the costume drama conceived through plots, both real and imagined.

This is altogether a fascinating production of an eloquent translation of a poetic drama. And what a suspenseful evening in the theater. Go!

By Isa Goldberg

Mary Stuart

Broadhurst Theatre
235 West 44th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)