Friedrich Schiller’s play, about 16th-century monarchs Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, is full of dramatic speculation about the personalities behind a continually popular historical power struggle, and it is adapted and directed by Robert Icke in rousing fashion. With Mary’s flight into England, engendering a political crisis for her sister Queen, much is made of international law and refugee status. Having two powerful women in charge begs for a study in gender politics. You can’t blame Icke for leaping on the opportunities offered – if hardly subtle, he marvellously stokes the flames within this early 19th century text.
At the start of each show, a toss of a coin decides which role the two leads, Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson, will take. That Icke emphasises one of the play’s many debates – the role of chance and fate – with such speedy excitement is indicative of his talents. As for the performances, both are impeccable. The night I attended heads and tails meant Williams played the Catholic monarch with a convincing mix of religious fervour and sensuality. Stevenson’s Virgin Queen was up there with the best – a shrewd executive struggling to hide hysterical fear about assassination plots. Physical threats to both women are highlighted by Icke, an expertly handled tactic that ramps up the drama.
A strong male cast joins Williams and Stevenson, with notably restrained performances. Occasionally the reserve strikes as almost odd. Rudi Dharmalingam’s double-dealing Mortimer presents a coolly controlled fanatic – his attempt to rape Mary is disturbing. Leicester is another duplicitous character who John Light makes it a pleasure to hate. Vincent Franklin and Alan Williams make their skill and experience show as Elizabeth’s loyal advisors, Burleigh and Talbot, who have to present different sides of an occasionally clunky argument about beheading Mary that are.
With brilliant performances, and some sprucing from Icke, this lengthy play, crammed with ideas and long sections of argument, races along. Success comes from the staging, with designer Hildegard Bechtler’s help. Played in the round, a rotating circular stage adds an adversarial air throughout. A climactic scene, utilising the stage’s movement is magical: accompanied by a song from Laura Marling, Elizabeth is transformed into Gloriana – face paint and all (it’s just too tempting for a story teller) – while Mary, in a simple shift, is freed from the “slavery” of the crown and worldly concerns. It’s a tough sell and, if you’re enamoured of Good Queen Bess, you won’t fall for the Marian martyrdom. But presentation of the debate about these women is brought up to date, the story shown at its gripping best, and there’s no doubt that Icke has produced stunning theatre here.
Until 21 January 2016
Photos by Manuel Harlan