Mary Stuart – Almeida Theatre
Cast Includes Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson
Running Time: 3 hours approx. inc. interval
There is something quite exciting about Mary Stuart at the Almeida. The combination of two leading actresses sharing the role on the spin of a coin, the adaptation of Schiller’s text and the direction of Robert Icke in his own adaptation after a stunning 1984 and Oresteia.
There is something intensely theatrical about the opening – the cast enter gradually and scan the audience, noting the voyeurism of theatre and also the themes that become apparent later. Williams and Stevenson enter and a coin is spun to decide who will pay which role – the ‘winner’ will play Elizabeth, whilst the ‘loser’ Mary Stuart.
The notion of chance determining roles is not original (it happening in the RSC’s 2016 Doctor Faustus) however it also brings into play the idea that both queens are in fact two sides of the same coin, sharing more similarities than differences. Both are trapped in their own ways, either by expectations or more conventional means and as the plays progresses it does question which is that actual ‘winner’.
The intensely political plot could seem daunting and unappealing; however, it is engrossing – the length of the show is not apparent as it is a taut, tense script which utilises it language to its utmost and doesn’t underestimate the importance of silence (which is apparent in lesser productions).
On the performance viewed, Stevenson played Mary with a restraint, until the end when the character is much freer and feels released from her torment. Williams plays Elizabeth with a passion and ferocity that was intense to watch
When the characters meet at approximately 1 ½ hours into the production, the scene that follows is magnetic and electrifying. The actresses are clearly at the top of their game and the shift of power between the two queens shift back and forth and the sheer force of will each display is phenomenal and is engrossing.
The other members of cast are also strong, without a weak link in the ensemble. Of particular note were Vincent Franklin as Burleigh and John Light as Leicester, who were both particularly entertaining as the power over Elizabeth shifted between the pair of them – it felt like a pair of lightweight boxer’s dodging blows the other landed, but with a harder, steely edge.
The minimal set really draws the audience’s focus the onstage action – with a revolving stage that contains merely three benches and some brick walls at the back, there is little to distract from the intense show.
Summary: An electrifying version of Schiller’s classic that utilises two of the UK’s best actresses to share the roles in a unique and timely production *****