Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - April 19, 2009
The Donmar Warehouse Production of Schiller's Mary Stuart A new version by Peter Oswald. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Scenic and costume design by Anthony Ward. Lighting design by Hugh Vanstone. Sound design by Paul Arditti. Cast: Janet McTeer, Harriet Walter, Jacqueline Antaramian, Tony Carlin, Michael Countryman, Monique Fowler, Adam Greer, John Benjamin Hickey, Guy Paul, Michael Rudko, Robert Stanton, Maria Tucci, Chandler Williams, Nicolas Woodeson, and Brian Murray.
Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter, who respectively play Mary and Elizabeth, are the fiery centerpieces of this searing production, which uses Peter Oswald's new version of Friedrich Schiller's go-for-broke 1800 script and has been directed by Phyllida Lloyd. Their performances, which they originated at London's Donmar Warehouse in 2005, rank among the most vivid seen on Broadway this season. Displaying fire-marshal-frightening pyrotechnics but scant traces of actory excess, McTeer and Walter carve grandly golden portrayals of two women struggling against the stereotypes and expectations foisted on them by the men who insist they have their queens' best interests at heart.
The latent link between Mary and Elizabeth has always been a vital component of Schiller's play. Mary's compelling claim to the English throne, as well as the specter haunting Elizabeth's own (her parents, as watchers of the Showtime series The Tudors know, were Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn), led to Mary's 20-year house arrest in Elizabeth's castle, and inflammation of the two's toxic conflicts: between the active and the passive, between the adored and the respected, and (not insignificantly) between the Catholic and the Protestant. This is outfitted with theatricality almost parodic in its nail-nibbling intensity, with advisors and admirers eternally grappling to take the women's sides (and, for that matter, their bodies) and with both Mary and Elizabeth armed with acid-coated dialogue and vivisecting speeches of roilingly rabble-rousing fervor.
The supporting performances maintain these rigorous standards. Michael Countryman invests Mary's sympathetic jailer with subtle and fascinating shadings. Chandler Williams and John Benjamin Hickey are excellent as Mortimer and the Earl of Leicester, who secretly vie for both women's affections, but are never what they appear to be for long. Nicholas Woodeson is smokily threatening as Lord Burleigh, who governs with considerable force beside and behind Elizabeth's throne; Brian Murray is completely convincing as his more moralistic counterpart, who's considerably less willing to let Elizabeth off the hook.
Good as everyone is, it is of course the warring queens who rule these proceedings. McTeer, who won a 1997 Tony Award for her performance in A Doll's House, brings both an inspiring hunger for freedom and a palpable erotic charge to Mary, making you see her desire to unite Scotland and England and her womanhood as equal weapons in her arsenal. Walter, on the other hand, never lets this quality seep into her performance: Her Elizabeth has been functionally desexualized to such an extent, that her wishes to exploit her virtue for her desired political marriage into French royalty take on a painful and poignant resonance.
Their virtuosic work alone is enough to ensure that this Mary Stuart never feels like it clawed its way out of dusty library stacks. But combined with the other elements, it's an invigorating evening of theatre. It's not quite perfect - a keystone scene in the second act, in which Elizabeth stealthily establishes the crown's unerring authority with the aid of her unwitting servant Davison (Robert Stanton), is perhaps played more for comedy than is strictly necessary - but structural faults of the production are not visibly in evidence.
One potential correction: If you're expecting this to be only a thoroughly transporting saga of one of last millennium's most catalytic cat-fights, you won't get your wish. It's impossible to leave the outside world at the door of the theater for this one. Certain stinging lines and phrases reverberate through our own current climate (Mary's pounding rebuke of her kangaroo court verdict, "A majority is not justice," is one of the clearest examples). Descriptions of Elizabeth's dehumanization of Mary bear more than a few similarities to the stories so frequently cited about Guantánamo Bay. And more than once McTeer's populist Mary, with her closely cropped hair, her passionate defenses of her unfavored religion, and her simplicity-wrapped deviousness, seemed the spitting image of Sarah Palin.
Apparently, Oswald, Lloyd, and everyone else want you to remember that the more the world changes, the more it stays the same. But even if you can't (or won't) draw such historical allusions, this Mary Stuart proves that great theater and great women, whether actresses or monarchs, never go out of style.