Duke of York’s Theatre, London – until 31 March 2018
Who shall be whom? In Robert Icke’s arresting adaptation of Schiller’s play, the scene opens with a sober-suited group of men watching two women in identical black velvet suits and white shirts, while a coin is spun to see which will be Queen Elizabeth I, which her third-cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and rival for the throne. One is Juliet Stevenson, one Lia Williams. They know no more than we do; they will obey the coin.
It is more than a gimmick, though you do catch your breath at the audacity and expertise of the actors, each knowing every heartbeat of the other’s part and prepared to play it.
It sets the theme which Icke picks out of the play: the fact that both women are trapped. Mary is imprisoned at Fotheringhay, accused and convicted – dubiously – of fomenting Catholic uprisings against Henry VIII’s daughter the Queen. Elizabeth is unwillingly engaged in marital negotiations with the French prince, and tainted by accusations of bastardy after her mother was executed and her father disowned her.
She must decide whether to sign the death warrant of a kinswoman, or risk Mary continuing as a martyred focus for revolt and assassination. Around the two women – who only meet once, with electric tension, in the third act of five – there swirl arguing, cajoling, threatening, sometimes treacherous courtiers. Only in the gentle last moments of Mary does the stage fill with women, her ladies returned to her at last.
On the night I went, Juliet Stevenson was the Protestant Queen, Lia Williams Mary. It felt in their first scenes entirely right: Stevenson a sharp commanding figure and Williams more vulnerable, softer.
But those who have seen it both ways round assure me that this is right too: indeed gradually a vulnerability in Elizabeth and bursts of spitting passionate fury in Mary narrow the gap: each can fight and scorn, each can be brought low by doubt and the need for love. And each, spectacularly, is wooed by the sexy, unnervingly convincing Leicester (John Light) whose real loyalties remain a touch obscure. Each too is trusted by the impassioned Mortimer (Rudi Dharmalingam) who is fanatically of the Catholic party.
It is political dynamite, emotional and cerebral catnip. Icke’s text – his own translation, in loose verse – is rather wonderful, unobtrusively poetic but with the iambic thrust and energy which drives and heightens otherwise straightforward argument and emotion. Only passingly does he seek ‘poetic’ diction: more of it is as straight as Elizabeth’s cry “I don’t like wisdom when it’s smeared with blood!” as she listens to Elliot Levey’ s marvellously smooth Burleigh, the ultimate politician, advocating a quick kill (the phrase “never trust a Cecil” seems to have echoed down centuries since).
It is consistently exciting, whether in the court circle or in the cell with Mary ; the set is simple, the curved brick back wall of the Almeida where it began is reproduced with just a revolve enabling several outbreaks of catlike, furious circling and a final coup de theatre with Elizabeth’s transformation into the terrifying portrait of her later years. The evening’s tone throughout is – in the best possible way – on a note of sustained political and fanatical hysteria, rarely and barely suppressed.
So, quite often, is your breath.