nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
April 21, 2009
Almost all of the action takes place offstage in Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart (in a new adaptation by Peter Oswald), much of it before the play even begins. What we actually see is primarily a series of intricate political debates circling around the throne of Tudor England, the lives of its two primary competing claimants—Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots—and the machinations of the noble gentlemen surrounding them who want to see one side or the other prevail. The play is a nearly three-hour-long series of rhetorical strategizing and eloquent speechifying—and remarkably engaging despite that, largely due to wonderful performances (the headliners, Harriet Walter as Elizabeth and Janet McTeer as Mary, are predictably spectacular, but the rest of the ensemble, under Phyllida Lloyd's precise direction, more than holds their own with in some ways more challenging roles), as well as a surprisingly intimate staging (the stark scenic design only uses a shallow strip of the depth of the stage, forcing all of the action right up against the audience). I'm not at all sure I actually liked the play—or more specifically, the adaptation (more on that later)—but watching it twist and turn its way through intrigue, double- and triple-agent maneuvering, master manipulation, and calculated oratory has many pleasures.
Both strong women with fine political minds and equally valid claims to the throne, survivors of tumultuous royal childhoods, and among the very few women rulers of their age (among the first of any age to rule by birthright rather than by marriage), Elizabeth and Mary were almost fated to clash even had they not fallen on opposite sides of their time's great religious schism: Elizabeth was a Protestant and Mary a Catholic. By the time the play begins, both of them have already faced down trials: Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII (by his second wife, Anne Boleyn), has made her way to the crown by a tortuous path. Disowned and declared a bastard multiple times in her young life (depending on which of his wives and children Henry VIII and the various church authorities were acknowledging at the moment), Elizabeth becomes queen only after her brother and sister have already died on the throne, and only due to a bold but potentially invalid legal maneuver by her father in naming his successors.
Mary, granddaughter of Henry VIII's elder sister Margaret, had become queen of Scotland as a baby after the death of her father; had been briefly queen of France but was widowed while still a teenager; and has recently been forced to abdicate her Scottish throne in favor of her own infant son. Because Mary was Catholic, and because in the eyes of the Catholics Elizabeth was illegitimate (the daughter of a marriage unrecognized by that Church), Mary's claim to the English throne had many supporters. When she fled to England seeking sanctuary, she was suspected of complicity in a plot to overthrow Elizabeth (on evidence that may have been planted or perjured), and imprisoned awaiting the verdict from her trial before a court of peers.
All of this is background; as the play begins, Mary is awaiting the messenger bringing the verdict from the trial—and not surprisingly, when tried by a jury of peers of Elizabeth's realm, she's overwhelmingly found guilty. What to do with her now is the main topic of discussion throughout. If Mary is executed, will she become a martyr and a rallying cry for Elizabeth's opponents? Conversely, if Mary is allowed to live, will Elizabeth look weak? Will it be better for Elizabeth's reputation to show mercy, or to be an instrument of justice and the legal system? Would it be most convenient if Mary should die in prison of "natural" causes, thus showing the divine will without Elizabeth having to execute the death warrant? How far can Elizabeth go to encourage "natural" causes to arise? All of this is hedged, of course, in Elizabeth's desire for plausible deniability; it's done by inference and subtext rather than her ever coming out and stating what she wants to happen.
Meanwhile, a small cadre of secret Catholics and other allies of Mary (all members of Elizabeth's court themselves) plot how to maneuver Elizabeth into delaying signing a death warrant so that they can plan a prison break. But some of those Mary thinks are on her side may actually be double agents, working their way into her confidence so they can report back to Elizabeth.
What Mary really wants is a personal audience with Elizabeth, convinced that in a face-to-face meeting one queen will be moved by the plight—or impressed by the strength—of the other. Thus far, the play agrees with historical events; but the meeting between the two, which happens late in the play's second act, never actually took place.
That meeting is wonderfully imagined. Mary, begins with dignified arguments for her right to Elizabeth's respect, then shifts tactics to desperate pleading, and finally, when making no headway, can't resist scoring cheap points against the queen. McTeer keeps Mary constantly walking a line between calculation and impulse, between saying what has the best chance of getting her what she wants, and saying what she actually wants to say. Walter as Elizabeth knows she has the upper hand, ultimately—Mary is her prisoner after all—but where appeals to her emotions fail, wounds to her pride hit home. It's not so much that she's cannier than Mary as that Mary slowly realizes over the course of the play that she no longer has anything to gain with negotiation, and so she might as well resort to honesty. Elizabeth can't ever let the facade slip, even to herself.
But since Mary and Elizabeth only ever meet once onstage, the rest of the play either features one of them among a group of men, or else just the men. And it's here that Oswald's adaptation and Lloyd's direction fell a little flat for me. Over and over again, choices in the writing and the staging highlight one main theme: here we have the only two women in politics, against a sea of men. This is visually extremely effective; the men wear virtually identical black modern business suits while the queens wear period clothing, and this allows for some beautiful pieces of stage composition with a phalanx of suits facing off against a solitary female figure. However, much of the most fascinating intrigue occurs among the men in their competition for the favor and the ear of a queen; the production, in turning them into a uniform sea of troubles, tends to flatten distinctions among them. And without a really clear and engaged sense of the political nuances and the character development outside of the queens, a lot of the play feels like merely preamble or postscript to the one scene where the two queens meet. Which is a shame, because some of the men are acting their hearts out as well—John Benjamin Hickey as the Earl of Leicester and Chandler Williams as Mortimer (the two double agents) in particular.
I found myself wanting either to see the exposition and the politics in the piece stripped way down so as to actually focus on the clash of the two queens, or to see a production that more fully engaged with the politics on all levels. I enjoyed myself thoroughly, but I feel like opportunities were missed in connecting with the overall context and intrigue of the play's world, rather than just the relationship between the queens.