For proof that opposites attract, look no further than the Donmar staging of “Mary Stuart,” which locks together the elemental fire of Janet McTeer and the fine-boned control of Harriet Walter into the sort of combat theatergoers may wish would never end. More so even than “Don Carlos,” the season’s earlier Schiller reclamation, “Mary Stuart” serves as a reminder that in the right hands, this ostensibly high-flown German dramatist has an accessible drive second to none, which equally describes Phyllida Lloyd’s astonishing production.
Play was last seen in London in 1996, in a National Theater staging chiefly notable for raising xenophobic English hackles at the casting of Isabelle Huppert in the title role of the Scottish queen who also ascended the throne as Queen of France (hence Huppert). All that’s raised across the nearly three hours of Lloyd’s production are goosebumps.
Lloyd strips everything away — Anthony Ward’s largely bare, sleek set is the pared-back antithesis to his work on “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” — except what matters most: the collision course between two cousins, rulers both, who also happen to be women enmeshed in deeply masculine intrigue.
Gender hasn’t often been at the forefront of other versions of this story, despite Elizabeth I’s epithet “the Virgin Queen” and the two-timing duplicity of that famous smoothie, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (the elongated Guy Henry in peak form), a courtier naked in his ambition. Perhaps it takes a female director to amplify the extent to which both queens operate against the odds in a male climate that here finds a visual correlative in Ward’s costumes: Although the men appear in contempo dark suits like so many interchangeable apparatchiks, both queens are resplendently arrayed in the apparel of the age, Elizabeth’s bursts of gold a rebuke to the cold, gray world she must master in order to survive.
Peter Oswald’s scintillating version relates, among other things, a breathless study in entrapment, as befits Schiller’s take on the Tudor monarch Elizabeth, who was incarcerated in the Tower of London four years before becoming queen. On the throne, she faces charges of illegitimacy, not least by Mary Stuart, who finds herself imprisoned in England “bricked up alive,” in the words of her nurse, Hanna (Barbara Jefford). Except, as history has told us, one queen or the other must die.
Who will prevail? The answer is obvious enough, as borne out by a text that refers to Elizabeth as “a young strong tower” set against the “old ruin” that is Mary. But such images don’t tell the whole story of the cut-and-thrust between two extremely smart, self-aware women for whom survival in any case is a double-edged sword.
All but imprisoned by her clothes, Walter’s ashen face at every moment communicates the toll taken on a queen who has lived through three assassination attempts only to be convinced that, on some level, she’s unfit to rule. (In an extraordinary moment, Mary emerges as the receptacle of Elizabeth’s gathering trauma, the Scottish queen’s head appearing to a fevered Elizabeth like a visitation out of “Macbeth.”)
Mary, conversely, may inhabit ever narrowing confines at least partly of her own proud making, but you fully believe the intensity of conviction with which she argues, “My cell is air” — especially with McTeer making the assertion.
Much as one watched “Heat” onscreen awaiting the faceoff between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, the comparable payoff here comes in a rain-swept second-act encounter at Fotheringhay Castle between both queens and the formidable actresses playing them, neither of whom disappoints.
Walter’s fascinatingly pinched quality and cultivated tones prove an ideal fit for Elizabeth, the actress capturing a rare wit (“These days, your suitors die before they reach the altar,” she tells her cousin) to go with a ruler who knows that she only occupies power “by a lucky throw of the dice.” McTeer’s capacity for abandon — so crucial to her Tony-winning turn in “A Doll’s House” — reaches giddy heights in the sequence in which a feral Mary clutches the Donmar’s vaguely imprisoning back wall, like a lioness uncaged.
Hanna may commend Mary Stuart for making “a quick leap straight out of time.” That precise quality informs McTeer’s strikingly modern but in no way anachronistic perf, which seems to have taken its cue from the inevitable resonances to a script that speaks of “fanatics in all kinds of disguise” at a time of terror. Mary may be living in the “shadow of the ax,” but she’s not the only one to know fear: So, too, must Elizabeth confront daily “the blade of human fate.”
Hugh Vanstone’s elegantly spectral lighting adds its own layers of intrigue to what is more than just ladies’ night. David Horovitch, David Burke and Rory Kinnear all suggest to differing degrees the difficulty of being compassionate — and male — in the Elizabethan court, while Rufus Wright cuts to the bone in his portrait of a flunky left carrying the can for a murderous assignment that turns out to be mighty vexed.
Still, the focus is on the two queens: How can it be otherwise in a production that offers up history as integral to the here and now, the play’s centuries-old antagonisms refashioned anew? Our final glimpse of Elizabeth, the would-be victor, suggests a leader inhabiting a living death amid a landscape in which everyone loses out except the audience.