Politics and power, in any age, are a dirty business. If the last Broadway transfer from the Donmar Warehouse, “Frost/Nixon,” was a keen reminder of that point, the London company’s latest transatlantic traveler, “Mary Stuart,” imparts the lesson even more trenchantly. The setting is late 16th-century England, and the writing dates back to 1800, but the spin, chicanery and ruthless self-preservation of a government that both abides by and manipulates public perception are timeless. Phyllida Lloyd’s steely revival of the Friedrich Schiller play simmers and scalds as it should, but it’s the deft balance of the parallel tragedies of two imprisoned queens that makes the production so enthralling.
One of the master strokes of Lloyd’s austere presentation is to costume rival monarchs Elizabeth (Harriet Walter) and Mary Stuart (Janet McTeer) in period dress, surrounded by men in contemporary suits. Their ranks may be elevated by bloodline and their current stations at opposite extremes, but these women are equally isolated and undermined in a world of scheming male bureaucrats.
Just as Christopher Hampton did with “The Seagull” earlier this season, Peter Oswald’s new version vigorously shakes the dust off the Schiller text. This is no stodgy history lesson but a juicy regal smackdown rendered in direct, muscular language that acquires its modernity without investing unduly in anachronisms. Emotional stakes, intrigue and tension are elevated throughout.
Oswald delineates the cousins’ reverse trajectories in bracingly limpid terms. Resplendent in black and gold amid her monochromatic courtiers, Elizabeth at the start is all pinched superiority and tart condescension, seemingly untouched by feeling for Mary, who’s been languishing in prison since she fled Scotland after a Protestant coup 19 years earlier.
Given the mounting threat of a Catholic insurgency to remove the illegitimate Elizabeth from the throne and install Mary, the Tudor Queen wants her out of the way. But she risks the rejection of a fickle public. “Slave to my own free people,” moans Elizabeth in an acrimonious soliloquy.
Drawing on her considerable political wiles, the Virgin Queen maneuvers to have Mary iced by means that allow her the appearance of mercy. But she’s entrapped by a court council led with pitbull determination by Lord Burleigh (Nicholas Woodeson), and by her own jealousy, pride and even conscience. The bitter hollowness of her victory is etched with transfixing candor on Walter’s face, leaving her aged, alone and plagued by doubts.
By contrast, Mary first appears as a humbled penitent, stripped of her possessions and attended only by her loving nurse (Maria Tucci). Her regal bearing is undiminished but her acknowledged complicity in the murder of her husband weighs heavily on her, a condition not eased by her keepers’ refusal to allow her religious sacraments.
Like Elizabeth, Mary mistakenly places her trust in men: first the infatuated and fanatical young Catholic convert Mortimer (Chandler Williams), then her cowardly former flame, the Earl of Leicester (John Benjamin Hickey), the oiliest of silver-tongued survivors. But unlike the circumspect Queen, Mary remains strong-willed and impulsive, spewing her outrage in a stunning torrent of rebuke. Having cast off her humility, she follows by renouncing both love and hate, ascending to martyrdom in a serene state that makes Elizabeth appear all the more pitiable.
The intersection of these crisscrossing paths is Schiller’s imagined encounter between the two queens. And that much-anticipated faceoff doesn’t disappoint, staged by Lloyd in the wake of a 12-minute downpour.
Relishing her unaccustomed taste of freedom, Mary gets soaked to the skin, placing her at a disadvantage when Elizabeth emerges, crisp and prepared, from beneath her attendants’ umbrellas just as the rain abruptly stops. It’s a stunning theatrical coup, particularly in such a stark context. The visual charge is matched by McTeer’s fireworks as Mary summons strength through indignant fury, leaving Elizabeth in abject humiliation.
Thrilling as her angry aria is, however, there’s a nagging invulnerability to McTeer’s performance. It’s technically flawless but chilly, with little evidence of Mary’s legendary charm. McTeer’s natural imperiousness and athletic robustness make it seem as if Mary could take down Elizabeth and all her flunkies without even pausing to put down her rosary. More convincing in primal rage than beatific bliss, the actress is unemotional; she’s impressive but rarely moving.
Walter, on the other hand, is shattering. It takes skill and subtlety to evoke sympathy for such a vain, calculating woman but Elizabeth’s is the outcome that resonates.
The American supporting cast stands up admirably against the dueling Brit divas, notably the impassioned Williams, artful Hickey, and Woodeson, whose diminutive height adds to Burleigh’s pugnaciousness. Michael Countryman explores the fissure between duty and compassion as Mary’s guard; Robert Stanton comically boxes himself into a fatal corner as a royal scapegoat; and Brian Murray brings sly humor and profound morality to his every line as the Earl of Shrewsbury, perhaps the only decent man in the court.
Lloyd has invaluable backup from set and costume designer Anthony Ward, who places minimal wood furnishings against an imposing stone wall, across which flicker the glowering shadows and violent colors of Hugh Vanstone’s moody lighting. This is a superbly focused production that permits no distractions from the antithetical arcs of its heroines, or the political machinations that shape their tragedies.