Troubled Queens in a Battle for Supremacy; LUCID PRODUCTION PIVOTS ON THE IMAGINARY MEETING OF MARY AND ELIZABETH
Byline: NICHOLAS DE JONGH
IMAGINE the sensation if some German playwright dreamed up a play in which Margaret Thatcher came face to furious face with Edward Heath in the mid-Nineties to thrash out their disagreements. The great 18th-century German playwright Friedrich Schiller, whose drama of revolution and desire, Don Carlos, proved a surprise hit in the West End this year, imagines a comparable meeting between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots.
While the encounter never happened in real life, this imagined scene marks the decisive highpoint of a fascinating psychological drama. It would work still better in Phyllida Lloyd's lucid production if Harriet Walter's Elizabeth and Janet McTeer's Mary carried full conviction as the troubled queens.
All through Mary Stuart, Schiller subtly interweaves the political and personal, playing up the warring queens' sexual rivalry. He dreams up a role of cunning erotic and political duplicity for Elizabeth's flawed favourite Leicester, whom Guy Henry makes the most deceitful of flattering courtiers.
It is Lloyd's irritating conceit that the queens wear 16th-century dress while all the men are garbed in modern suits. An odd, unnecessary gulf yawns, therefore, between the genders.
The play, which carries far less dramatic charge than Don Carlos, depends on the regal battle for supremacy. Peter Oswald's translation, which mainly avoids misplaced modernisms, captures Schiller's impassioned eloquence.
Elizabeth appears set for victory over Mary, thereby stabilising a shaky throne, when she signs Mary's death warrant. Yet in Schiller's exhilarating version, victory proves a kind of defeat. England's vacillating queen is left in a barren, isolated lovelessness. …