Mary Stuart @ Almeida Theatre: Fluidity and Rigidity

Let’s not even pretend this is a review. It’s not. It’s just some thoughts that I had.

Rob Icke’s had a very good year. He started with Vanya, won an Olivier, directed the sold out Red Barn at the National and now there’s this. And it’s bloody good. There’s a moment towards the end of Mary Stuart that is seared onto my memory; one queen is trapped, the other is free. I want to keep this spoiler free so I’ll just say it’s so beautifully constructed and performed it took my breath away. It was a singular, stunningly crafted moment in a production that delivers nothing less than that.

If Icke’s Vanya was an exercise in the detail of stillness and quiet, then Mary Stuart’s on Red Bull. There’s a sense of restlessness, there is really no time to think, let alone make the thoughtful decisions. It’s as if Mary and Queen Liz (if I may) have permanent motion sickness. There’s an incessant ticking of a clock, in fact the whole show is through scored to heighten the tension, but it’s never intrusive. The only way the noise and the movement can stop is when one of them is dead.

Both of the women at the centre of this drama know what it will mean if they ever dare to externalise their anger. They also know how easily it could have been the other way around – as, I’m sure, do the actors. A coin spin, as has been oft reported, decides which actress plays which queen.  At the performance I attended, Lia Williams called heads. Heads it was, and seemingly without blinking she became Queen Elizabeth, utterly regal. Juliet Stevenson, totally implacable, shed her velvet suit jacket and scribbled the name Mary Stuart.

Mary’s predicament is… delicate, to put it mildly. Schiller certainly seems to think that Mary is guilty of murdering her husband, which makes Mary’s barely-contained rage at the start all the more interesting. And yet, she is totally insistent on meeting Queen Elizabeth. If she is guilty, and there’s very little Elizabeth is likely to do, and there’s now a precedent for executing a queen, why is she so insistent on this? Stevenson plays the turmoil and the desperation exquisitely, always regal – even dressed in sackcloth.

Williams’ Queen Elizabeth has not yet been aged by politics. She does not – or perhaps cannot – hide her panic as well as Mary, her self-assurance seems to be on a knife edge, as if her head were the one on the chopping block. With Williams’ subtle work, you get a woman who is only just managing to keep a hold on things; her court, her relationships, her own mind. Icke’s production suggests that is is only when matters are taken out of her own hands does she become the iconic ‘Elizabeth I.’

Speaking of which, there is an excellent coup Icke pulls in the final minutes of the play, that suggests the fluidity of time, of history and of chance is totally, irrevocably changed by the events of the fourth act. That is to say, when the course of history is inadvertently changed by someone else, then the icon is born.

By taking the element of chance literally, the production is both fluid and rigid; relying both on discipline and chance. Perhaps they’re not as exclusive as they appear to be.

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