Friedrich Schiller, in a new adaptation created by Robert Icke
Duke of York's Theatre
Who knew that history could be this thrilling? What seemed such a dry subject at school becomes anything but in Robert Icke’s combative new adaptation of Schiller’s classic take on the difficult relationship between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, first seen in 1800.
The excitement is built up after only a single word, as a coin spun by John Light, soon to take on the guise of the Earl of Leicester, decides the fate of Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams.
On the opening night in the West End, as had happened a year before at the Almeida, Miss Williams became the English Queen and her colleague the doomed Franco-Scottish great-niece of Henry VIII.
The production values are a significant part of the evening’s enjoyment. The combatants wear sober modern dress and speak in the language of the 21st century, although avoiding slang. In Hildegard Becker’s design conception, on a stage that has borrowed the Almeida’s traditional unadorned back wall and benefits from a revolve, few props are used. However, music underscores the action and, at a critical moment, a rather beautiful song composed and sung by Laura Marling illuminates the drama.
The early scenes all take place at Fotheringay Castle where Mary is in prison, awaiting a decision on her fate from noblemen whose rights she does not accept, given her status as the rightful Queen of England, at least in her own eyes and those of her many advocates.
Supported by Carmen Munro in the role of her old nurse, Hannah, Mary veers between calm stateliness and vehement anger, making life difficult for her gaoler, Christopher Colquhoun’s noble and honourable Paulet.
When all seems lost, Rudy Dharmalingam playing his young nephew Mortimer becomes the first in a long line of nobles in this play to offer hope, declaring himself a converted Catholic, thereby tapping into one of the major themes of the evening, the religious yo-yoing of Tudor England in the wake of Henry VIII.
In subsequent acts, the constantly vacillating Elizabeth moves centre-stage, swayed by the arguments of her advisers, although always suspicious of duplicity, often with good reason.
They are led by consummate spin doctor Burleigh, portrayed by Elliot Levey as suave but lightweight. The boldest adherent is Leicester, the kind of two-timing lover that every Queen might fall for but none can trust.
Humanity comes in the form of Michael Byrne’s ageing Talbot, the voice of reason desperate to save Mary in the belief that this will also offer the best diplomatic solution for the reigning Queen.
The politicking goes on for three hours and, having grabbed the attention in the first minutes, effortlessly holds it throughout a literally intriguing evening.
While it would have been good to sample the actresses playing the alternate roles, it is hard to believe that anyone could surpass Miss Stevenson’s performance as Mary, while Lia Williams really comes into her own in the later stages when Elizabeth’s desires to maintain her own dignity while ridding the country of a serious threat to her own life at the same time as desperately seeking peace for herself in the nation.
This is a wonderful opportunity for West End audiences to enjoy a cracking, highly accessible, revival of one of the greatest plays in the European canon.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher