Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Maria Stuart; Art

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Maria Stuart; Art

Article excerpt

God, what a dusty old chatterbox Schiller is. Like Bernard Shaw, he can't put a character on stage without churning out endless screeds of cerebral rhetoric. But unlike Shaw, he has no sense of humour, nor any instinct for the quirks and grace notes that create a personality. Mary Stuart is a psychological drama with a single issue. How soon, and with what political consequences, can Elizabeth execute her treacherous cousin Mary? Schiller's characters sound and feel identical: super-brainy, highly confident know-alls who treat each problem like a gang of Chancery briefs discussing a particularly knotty insolvency case.

Director Robert Icke's regimented production imposes high-street fashions on England in the 1560s. The courtiers wear sharky two-piece suits like Apprentice candidates. Elizabeth sports a black velvet jacket, as if she were Melvyn Bragg taking a stroll on Hampstead Heath. Mary favours trousers too, naturally enough, and a secretarial blouse with pointy collars. Nothing conjures up Tudor England like the M&S daywear range. Schiller's convoluted jabber grinds on for an hour before a vague sub-plot surfaces.

Two of Mary's spies, posing as Elizabeth's supporters, vow to advance the Catholic cause, but their scheme pegs out after a foreseeable act of treachery. At curtain-up, the audience is treated to a novelty. A coin is spun to determine which actress will play which queen. But Icke has chosen players from the wrong age group. I saw Lia Williams, in her middle years, playing Mary (aged 24 at the time), and Juliet Stevenson, a few Christmases short of a free bus pass, playing the 33-year-old Elizabeth.

In one sense this barely matters because Schiller is incapable of treating his women as women. English folklore has amusing tales of Elizabeth's jealous fascination with Mary's looks, stature and complexion but the lumbering German gas bag can't find space for such feminine touches. The pivotal scene, the famous encounter between the two rivals invented by Schiller, proves a disappointment. Neither character has a credible dramatic goal. Mary affects to beg Elizabeth for her freedom but any fool can see that this request will fail. And Elizabeth has no conceivable reason to meet her enemy. The scene turns into a weird game of one-upmanship between two haughty smart Alecs. Shifty Mary goads and taunts the icy Elizabeth until the stalemate is broken when they lunge at each other, panting and clawing, in a burst of regal cage-fighting. …

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