×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

London Theater Review: ‘Mary Stuart’ at the Almeida Theater

With:
Alexander Cobb, Rudi Dharmalingam, Vincent Franklin, David Jonsson, John Light, Carmen Munroe, Eileen Nicholas, Daniel Rabin, Sule Rimi, Juliet Stevenson, Alan Williams, Lia Williams.

A nation divided with history hanging in the balance: Robert Icke’s new version of Frederich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart” reflects this runaway year. With a coin toss each night determining which roles actresses Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams will play — one England’s Queen Elizabeth I, the other Scotland’s doomed Mary Stuart — it’s not so much the mirror image that strikes you as the contingency of it all. Everything might so easily have been otherwise and, in times of great churn, when history loses its head, the future is governed by chance — and by chancers.

So it is here. Schiller shows England’s queen crushing a Catholic uprising against her reign, quite literally cutting off its head by imprisoning, and eventually executing, Mary Queen of Scots, her opposite number and cousin. If her hand wavers over the death warrant, it’s for fear of setting a precedent for regicide. Sign away Mary’s life and she risks writing her own death warrant in turn.

These women are, in a very real way, two sides of the same coin. Not only are they one another’s sole equals, elevated above the populations they rule by their royalty, they are also both equally captive: one in defeat, the other in victory. As monarch, Elizabeth finds her hand forced — by her people’s will, by her jostling advisers, by logic and by faith, even by history itself. “The crown,” she says, “is just a prison cell with jewels.”

The coin toss makes that duality abundantly clear. Since either casting’s a possibility, each actress seems to contain the other somehow, and Williams and Stevenson are one another’s mirror images: their hair identically short, their blouses both brilliantly white, just as androgynous as each other.

They are, however, actors of very different timbre. Williams is elfin and quicksilver; Stevenson, sober and searching. When Williams plays Elizabeth, her manner suits a queen who knows sex is part of her arsenal, while Stevenson’s a penitant, almost puritan, prisoner as Mary. It’s just as easy to imagine the opposite: a stern, stoical monarch and a defiant, even dandyish, rebel.

However, as the coin spins, rumbling around in its brass bowl, the entirety of history seems briefly suspended. Either woman could emerge as the victor and, you realize, that’s how war works. The winner determines the future. They define the nation. Elizabeth persecutes England’s Catholics but, on another day, Mary might have purged it of Protestants. After a divisive referendum, a vote that might have gone either way, Britain’s future, its entire national identity, feels just as precarious once again.

This is basically Schiller as “Sliding Doors,” and it goes way beyond that one flip of the coin. Any single moment might send history spinning off elsewhere, and Icke stresses the sheer uncertainty of unfolding events. When the two monarchs meet — a meeting that “will decide everything” — emotions get the better of diplomacy. An assassination attempt misses its mark by mere millimeters: Williams emerges bloodstained, a bandage just shy of her jugular. Behind the two queens, loyalists jostle for influence, all these men trying to grab the steering wheel for their own ends and ideals. Vincent Franklin’s technocrat Burley outmaneuvers John Light’s alpha Leicester who had, himself, seen off Rudi Dharmalingham’s young radical Mortimer. One slip and they’re out — a footnote in history — but all of them are improvising: opportunists on the hoof.

That’s the terrifying thing about this “Mary Stuart”: No-one’s in control, but everything’s at stake — and don’t we know how that feels. Icke plays it at full pelt, with the utmost of urgency, fraught as hell. It springs onto the stage and shouts itself hoarse, and what’s lost in narrative clarity is gained ten times over in nerve-shredding thrills.

Like all good thriller writers, Schiller supplies a great twist, but suspense gives way to horror. Victors tend to wipe out opposition and, as Elizabeth ends deified — the actress transformed into the icon we know — Mary ends up entirely destroyed. History is a zero-sum game. The winner takes all.

London Theater Review: 'Mary Stuart' at the Almeida Theater

Almeida Theatre, London; 325 seats; £38 ($47) top. Opened, December 15, 2016; reviewed Dec 14. Running time: 3 HOURS, 15 MIN.

Production: An Almeida Theatre production of a play in two acts by Frederich Schiller

Creative: Adapted and directed by Robert Icke; design, Hildegard Bechtler; lighting, Jackie Shemesh; composition, Laura Marling;
sound, Paul Arditti; video, Tim Reid.

Cast: Alexander Cobb, Rudi Dharmalingam, Vincent Franklin, David Jonsson, John Light, Carmen Munroe, Eileen Nicholas, Daniel Rabin, Sule Rimi, Juliet Stevenson, Alan Williams, Lia Williams.

More Legit

  • Signature Theatre Celebrates Millionth Subsidized Ticket

    Signature Theatre Offers $35 Subsidized Tickets, Celebrates Millionth Sold

    Just the other night, a Manhattan cab driver told Signature Theatre executive director Harold Wolpert that he couldn’t afford to take his girlfriend to a show. In response, Wolpert motioned to his theater, saying that they offer $35 subsidized tickets. The driver said he’d try it out. “It was a great moment,” Wolpert said. “We’re [...]

  • SOCRATES The Public Theater

    Tim Blake Nelson Waxes Philosophical on Writing a Play About Socrates

    Despite Tim Blake Nelson’s knack for playing folksy characters in films such as “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” in his soul lurks the heart of a classicist. Nelson, who stars in HBO’s “Watchmen” series this fall, has also penned the play “Socrates,” now running at New York’s Public Theater through June 2. Doug Hughes directs, [...]

  • TodayTix - Brian Fenty

    TodayTix Banks $73 Million to Boost Theater and Arts Ticketing App

    TodayTix, a Broadway-born mobile ticketing start-up, is looking to expand into a bigger global media and transaction enterprise with a capital infusion of $73 million led by private-equity firm Great Hill Partners. The investment brings TodayTix’s total capital raised to over $100 million, according to CEO and co-founder Brian Fenty. Part of the new funding [...]

  • Ethan Hawke, Bobby Cannavale and Griffin

    BAM Gala Marks Leadership Change, Celebrates Brooklyn as 'Cultural Center of New York'

    Wednesday’s annual gala celebrating the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) served as a poignant moment of transition for the New York stalwart of contemporary performance. As long-time artistic director Joe Melillo, who along with Harvey Lichtenstein transformed BAM into a vanguard of progressive art, prepares to pass the torch to new leadership, gathered patrons and [...]

  • Tootsie Santino Fontana

    Listen: Santino Fontana on How Broadway's 'Tootsie' Was Adapted for Our Times

    Broadway’s “Tootsie” has turned into one of this season’s Tony Awards frontrunners, winning raves for its deftly funny update of potentially problematic source material — and for a firecracker cast led by Tony nominee Santino Fontana (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” “Frozen”), who makes his character’s transformation, from difficult actor Michael Dorsey to female alter ego Dorothy Michaels, [...]

  • Death of a Salesman review

    London Theater Review: 'Death of a Salesman'

    August Wilson famously disavowed the idea of an all-black “Death of a Salesman.” In 1996, he declared any such staging “an assault on our presence and our difficult but honorable history in America.” Arthur Miller’s antihero is no everyman, Wilson implied; Willy Loman is very specifically white. Critic John Lahr was inclined to agree: “To [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content