Almeida Theatre, London – until 21 January 2017
“The Queen? Which Queen?”… Robert Icke’s Mary Stuart is a towering success, an extraordinary piece of theatre that surely ranks amongst the year’s best, no mean feat considering his Oresteia, also for the Almeida, did the same thing last. There’s added spice here too since leading players Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson do not know which of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots they will be playing until the beginning of the performance when it is decided with a coin toss….
There’s much to enjoy about this Mary Stuart but what is particularly pleasing to see is = Icke’s directorial instincts developing and maturing. The production opens with Tim Reid‘s live video, capturing the opening gambit, but cannily isn’t used again until a key counterbalancing action later on; likewise original compositions from Laura Marling are quite the coup but again are used sparingly, wisely, at two crucial and contrasting moments. The timestamping of each act over a more or less 24-hour period measures out a steady but always forceful sense of pace – Icke has always been a strikingly effective director but the less is more ethos espoused here is singularly superb.
So too with the political overtones of his adaptation, everywhere you look contemporary resonances can be found but they’re never overplayed. The 52% are hauled over the coals when “a majority does not prove a thing is right”; the dangers of riding roughshod, Trump-like, over the tenets of “international laws” are explored; the doublespeak (or rather non-speak) of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ finds a chilling partner in Elizabeth’s determination to shift the responsibility of the death warrant onto her man Davison, surely no accident that his modern-day equivalent is called David Davis…
So the world of realpolitik is brought vividly to life, and what a world it is. Under the ever-present rumble of Paul Arditti’s ominous sound, Hildegard Bechtler’s circular design hides rings within rings, trapping monarchs and manservants alike, even when there’s a hint of freedom soaring on the breeze. Vincent Franklin is superb as Burleigh, the most forceful of the political circle; Alan Williams’ achingly good Talbot the most circumspect and there’s excellent work too from John Light and Rudi Dharmalingham as Leicester and Mortimer, both caught in the fervour of double-dealing and also both unable to contain their sexual urges, suggesting that even when a queen reigns, it’s still mostly a man’s world.
That said, Williams and Stevenson utterly rule the roost here. The swagger of Williams’ bequiffed Elizabeth with her popped collar, taking a single bite of a proffered brownie, a solitary puff of a cigarette lit for her, is just thrilling to watch. Yet as her certainties are stripped, the realities of ruling more and more apparent to her, her darkening complexity is fearsome. By contrast, there’s a lightness to Stevenson’s Mary, undimmed by captivity and even by acceptance of her fate, the scene with her young ladies is simply heartbreaking (special mention to the expertly dry wit of Carmen Munroe’s faithful servant Kennedy) yet we never lose sight of the manipulator she’s needed to be either. Stunning stuff indeed – no matter which way the coin lands, you win.