Following its hugely successful run at the Almeida in 2016/17, Mary Stuart has returned to the Duke of York’s Theatre. The Islington venue is the gift that keeps on giving, delivering hit after hit to the West End including Ink and the recent Hamlet. Robert Icke also directs the latter, and his heavy, stylish storytelling transforms well-known tales.
Both lead actresses, Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson, play both roles – Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart. Who will be who is decided by a filmed coin toss at the beginning of Act One. I truly wonder how they can stomach the uncertainty, but they seem to manage it with ease. Last night Williams became Elizabeth I, but both, in matching white blouses and black velvet suits, are fantastic, and both women reflect how difficult it must be to be a leader and a woman at the same time.
Their troubles can be seen in modern day politics, as despite Elizabeth being at the top, a council of untrustworthy men surrounds her. Both women’s sexuality is brought into question – one doesn’t have enough sex; the other has had too much. Either way it is considered, and we, and the women, frustratingly realise that this would not, and has never been, the case for a male monarch. Not only do they have to answer to those directly around them, but the public too, and the mounting pressure from the people is stifling.
With an incredible supporting cast, including Rudi Dharmalingam as the obsessively Catholic Mortimer, John Light as the double-crossing Leicester, and Michael Byrne as Talbot, who advises his Queen with respect, power and candour. All build to a strong company, a solid body for Stevenson and Williams to bounce between. Hildegard Bechtler’s costume design of tailored suits in muted, neutral tones drags the story forward in time. When Williams is, in the last Act, dressed up as Elizabeth I as we know her, she looks frankly terrifying, and the trappings that make the Queen, the Queen, are realised as she stands still and stiff centre stage.
Mary Stuart injects emotion into a story we all know, but because it has been told so many times, it is now so far from us that it feels so distant, almost untrue. The reality and the difficulty of the situation surfaces in Schiller’s script, and nothing but sorrow is felt for both Elizabeth and Mary. We realise that, although the plot has been somewhat fictionalised, that ultimately both women suffered the same trials, both were scrutinised and victims of sexism, and both longed for acceptance and respect – from the people, their peers, and perhaps one-another. The femininity and strength in this piece is palpable, and essential.
Mary Stuart is playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 31 March 2018
Photo: Manuel Harlan