Schiller’s magnificent drama about the imprisonment and execution of Mary Queen of Scots at the hands of Elizabeth I of England would seem to be the perfect way to bolster nationalistic pride in this, the first mainstage classical drama produced by the National Theater of Scotland. Helmer Vicky Featherstone undercuts such certainties, however, by casting an English actor as Mary and a Scottish actor as Elizabeth in a production that repeatedly plays against type. Although she draws forth two forceful performances in the central roles, she fails to set the political pulse racing in the machinations going on around them.
Ironically, that’s because the production offers a more typically English emotional restraint, rather than the looser, more direct style associated with Scottish acting.
The tone of cool, conversational control is established from the start as Paulet (Ken Drury) argues with Mary’s maid, Jane (Eileen Walsh), in a manner that deliberately runs counter to the passion of the dialogue. In his suit and tie, Drury seems more like a bank manager disappointed in his client’s overdraft than a jailer clamping down on his prisoner’s sedition.
This approach throws an unexpected light on the play: The world keeps turning even when a queen’s life is in the balance, an idea followed through in all the male parts. While the queens parade around in period costume, the men are dressed like modern politicians in anonymous suits. Featherstone shows them as slimy backroom operators — bloodless bureaucrats who have swapped their masculine muscle for wily expediency.
That’s true not only for Phil McKee’s Leicester, the weak-willed confidante of both queens who changes his allegiance as it suits him, but for nearly all the courtiers. Robin Laing’s Mortimer, for example, is less the high-minded Catholic convert determined to free Mary in the name of his religion than a high-spirited opportunist with wandering hands whose martyrdom looks like an act of vanity.
As a vision of today’s political class they make a suitably insipid bunch, men whose survival instincts are stronger than their moral principles. But in their buttoned-up way, they underplay the waves of political energy that course through Schiller’s script, translated here in a clear, unostentatious version by scribe David Harrower (“Blackbird”).
It means, more than ever, that we long for the two queens to return to the stage — Elizabeth to wrestle with the political and emotional strain of her position, Mary to square up to her inevitable execution. Again, playing counter to expectation, Siobhan Redmond’s Elizabeth makes a flirtatious virgin queen, dressed first as a coquettish butterfly in white, later in lascivious reds, cleverly using her sexuality as a tool of control. She shows us an Elizabeth who has the impressive ability to hold her own at the center of a male world, yet can be equal parts vulnerable and manipulative when it suits her.
Catherine Cusack, by contrast, is a most Presbyterian-looking Catholic with her close-cropped hair and simple tunics. She’s eminently level-headed, bringing a plain-speaking note of caution when passions rise, yet showing no restraint when she comes face-to-face with Elizabeth.
In conversation, the two are the fiery match of each other, forever balanced on the knife-edge between political formality and competitive rage.
Their fight to the death is equally weighted, making Mary’s loss a tragedy for both. Featherstone shows them as women whose causes are so much more noble than those of the mediocre men around them — an interesting interpretation that comes at the expense of Schiller’s other stands of dramatic energy.