Mary Stuart

Friedrich Schiller, in a new version by Mark Leipacher and Daniel Millar
The Faction
New Diorama Theatre

Derval Mellett as Mary Queen of Scots Credit: Richard Davenport

Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 play about Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots is a piece of theatre not documentary history.

Though the dilemma behind it is real, he invented characters and situations and this relatively free adaptation concentrates on bringing out its drama and modern relevance. It is modestly unaccredited in the programme unless you look at the small type in the director’s list of past work (though named in the season brochure) but is the key to the whole production which is in modern dress with some hints of the Elizabethan, and with references to terrorism it seems very contemporary.

The use of a telegram at one point perhaps marks it as a pre-mobile 'phone age, but it feels very modern as it takes us into the back rooms of government and power. This is less German romanticism and more realpolitik with Elizabeth and her advisers contemplating marriage alliances, potential rebellion and what to do with Elizabeth’s prisoner cousin, the refugee Queen of Scotland, whose very existence is a threat to Elizabeth’s throne.

This production, which places the emphasis on the ensemble rather than on just the diva queens, has no set beyond the black walls of the theatre within which it places four lamps on high stands and some equipment boxes, then later a high, extending aluminium ladder and an elegant modern chair. Most of the male courtiers wear their top coats hung like Elizabethan cloaks over one shoulder and their weapons are swords and daggers. Mary’s former jailor Talbot, terminally sick, is in a wheelchair. Elizabeth has a glittering satin bustier and a jewel on a headband, which hints at contemporary portraits, while Mary and her attendant Kennedy start off with cut-down farthingale supports.

Entrances are made through the auditorium doors, the glass panels in them used to check against discovery for scenes of secret plotting, and the sudden emergence of light on opening a rear door has a powerful effect in such stark staging. Martin Dewer’s lighting makes a significant contribution, including a cutthroat bleeding light across the stage. Some private dialogues are cautiously played out in far corners, and, for some of Elizabeth’s most significant moments, we see only her back.

Leipacher has a great sense of the theatrical and simplicity gives the swirl of a coat or the flash of a blade a greater emphasis. He gives his sense of effect full rein as, in the build up to Mary’s execution, those building the scaffold are all hooded headsmen, but we see no flashing axe. Instead of the flat platform and block of history, Mary ascends a silver stair to heaven a white-robed martyr.

When the scene shifts to Elizabeth’s court, he introduces a masque-like mime that plays out a scene the text describes as having happened with Virtue repelling the attacks of suitors. It is difficult to interpret but is typical of this company’s physicality. When Elizabeth goes hunting, the company turns into a pack of black-nosed hounds chasing a fox—and Mary. It jars a little, a fox hunt is hardly regal, but it makes its point as the actors who have previously been courtiers and ministers reveal their brutish natures.

I have not been able to compare scripts, but the text seems streamlined. Gone are many of Schiller's longer speeches, but the storytelling is clear and Schiller’s fitting in of the backstory at the opening neatly encapsulated with the addition of projected ‘footnotes’ that explain who some of the principle characters are and, if they are not already in the action, a shaft of light discovers them in the upstage darkness. A projected royal escutcheon places us at Whitehall or wherever the Queen is holding court, and we sometimes see the contents of a message projected too, though rarely clearly enough to read with ease.

Derval Millett’s Mary is a bitter, fiery spirit; she can go from a whisper to a shriek in a moment. She is much younger than the mid-forties Queen of history, her mini-length black dress and bare legs along with curling locks are meant, perhaps, to suggest the sexuality associated with her, but this is a woman passionate about her rights rather than romantically adventurous.

Elizabeth, with a sparkling satin bustier and a jewel on a headband to hint at familiar portraits (a decade the elder in real life), is much more mature in manner. Kate Sawyer plays her with a clear delivery that reminded me of Margaret Thatcher, and she seemed equally determined: an experienced woman sure of herself and how to handle her ministers. Is it conscience or public image that most concerns her where Mary is concerned?

Leicester (a year older than his Queen) has long-haired curls that look Elizabethan but a bald spot ages Elizabeth’s former love. Gareth Fodred makes him a hard-headed opportunist, even as he calls up romantic memory. This Earl knows how to play the court game, but Richard Delaney’s Lord Burleigh is the skilled career politician. With his lawyer’s speech and manner he seems made for Downing Street. Conscience gives him no problems, though you feel sure that somehow he would have made WMDs turn up somehow. An ageing man in history, much Elizabeth’s senior, here he is still a young politician and looks well able to handle a Newsnight interrogation.

There is strong playing from everyone, but as Mortimer, Schiller’s invented would-be rescuer of Mary, Tom Radford gives a fascinating performance. It is a character you don’t really believe as you watch his apparent double-dealing until you realise he is a romantic fantasist. Where Schiller gives him impassioned poetry as he presents himself to Mary Stuart, in this production he manically assaults her, a sixteenth-century jihadist who believes he’s going to be rewarded.

Schiller’s Elizabethans were an 1800 reinvention and, if I have harped a little on the difference between history and this production, it is not to knock it but to show how much they have re-envisioned it for today.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton