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"Mary Stuart" By Friedreich Schiller
Adapted by Peter Oswald with Janet Mcteer and Harriet Walker
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Broadhurst Theater 235 West 44th Street
Reviewed May 2, 2009 by Margaret Croyden
Schiller's "Mary Stuart" has fascinated many actresses. I must confess I saw this Schiller version several times before. Once in the movies, with Bette Davis, once on television with Helen Mirren and several other divas who are forgettable. By now everyone may know the story of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland and the British monarch, Elizabeth--enemies till the end. The historical aspects of this production are not the point because it seems to me the author distorted the facts. In this Schiller play Mary Stuart is depicted as a sympathetic woman who was needlessly arrested and later sentenced to die. Elizabeth comes across as a nasty, strong, traditional monarch. The two personalities are the subject of this play. Apparently Schiller saw Mary as a victim. The historical fact is that Mary wanted to bring back Catholicism and dethrone Elizabeth. Protestantism had been established for only thirty years after Henry VIII left the Catholic church because it refused to grant him a divorce to marry another woman. And so Mary actaully was a threat.
Political history aside, the play, while historically misleading, gives two actors, Jane Mcteer and Harriet Walter, an opportunity to act up a storm. And they do. Each has a big scene, and each dominates the stage in her own way. The first act is divided between the two queens. Scene one is the jail where Mary is ensconced, waiting to hear her fate. The scenery is a rough wall, a nasty, dirty bed and a bedraggled loyal servant. But Mary is not alone. A number of men surround her, some secretly Catholic who will be conspiring against Elizabeth to free Mary; others represent the British monarch and are anxious for the Queen's approval to sentence Mary to death. Mary, in her shabby clothes and disheveled appearance, rants against Elizabeth who she knows will never free her since she and her fellow Catholics are plotting against the throne. Mary doubts she will ever be free.
There is enormous amount of talk, mostly to do with the politics of the time and this becomes tiresome, particularly if one doesn't know English history. But Janet Mcteer is all fire and energy and stands out from the other actors (the courtiers) who surround her but are nondescript.
The second part of Act I takes place in Elizabeth's palace. There she is surround by numerous Lords and political types. Elizabeth is doubtful and hesitant in declaring the death of Mary but her court supports the idea. They argue that as long as Mary lives, the British throne is in danger. Protestantism was new for England and in fact many plots existed to restore Catholicism. This second scene belongs to Harriet Walter as Elizabeth who is forceful but obvious. She delivers the image of power and cleverness, although she seems reluctant to use her position in the case of Mary.
By the way, the men in Elizabeth's court all wear traditional modern business suits, though the women are costumed in accordance with the times. This kind of costuming did nothing for the production, only confused it more, and besides all the men looked and sounded alike. I suppose the producers were trying to save money .
The ending is a foregone conclusion. Mary goes to her death, Elizabeth retains her power and though remorseful, justifies her action despite a feeling of guilt.
The play, though based on history, is a fictional work. Elizabeth and Mary never met. But the use of this meeting is a good theatrical device to give punch to the well know story. Although Mary is portrayed sympathetically, she was actually a plotter, was involved in her husband's murder, and did do everything possible to dethrone Elizabeth.
Despite the predictability of the ending, the actors in the two leads know how to deliver. Neither one gives a surprise performance, but both are excellent. They are regal, loud, forceful, and angry--and very theatrical.
As for the famous Schiller play--it is boring, but audiences loved the performance of the two divas. And rightly so. But enough already about Elizabeth and Mary --at least for a couple more years--if ever.
Margaret Croyden's latest book is "Conversations with Peter Brook, 1970-2000" (Fairer, Straus and Giroux).
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