Now playing at the Broadhurst Theatre on Broadway.
I suspect philosopher-playwright Johann Schiller was less sympathetic to England’s first Queen Elizabeth than I am, but the genius of his play Mary Stuart—about the fatal rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots—is that one needn’t share Schiller’s sympathies, or lack thereof, to enjoy it. Schiller plays fair, for the most part, rendering both Elizabeth and Mary with dazzling complexity and a deliciously meaty sense of drama. The play climaxes in a confrontation between the two queens—a meeting that, in life, never happened, much as Mary wished for it. But that meeting is the sort of thing that should be true, the sort of thing that begs for art to improve upon life, which makes Schiller’s invention of it all the more precious.
The play opens with Elizabeth’s imprisonment of Mary nearing its close. Mary was ostensibly convicted of murdering her second husband (a crime with which she was, in fact, complicit but over which England had little claim of jurisdiction), but the real issue is Mary’s claim to the English throne. For Catholics, in particular, Mary is an appealing figure on which to stake hopes of regime change, and Elizabeth, having escaped numerous assassination attempts, is loath to let that door remain open. Despite the questionable legalities and ethical issues, she feels great pressure to order Mary’s execution. Mary fears that her one hope of reprieve is to meet her cousin and fellow queen in person and beg for her life.
Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter play Mary and Elizabeth in director Phyllida Lloyd’s production, an import from London’s Donmar Warehouse, and both are stunningly good. They have been cast to type—McTeer, more than six feet tall, easily projects Mary’s robust sensuality, and Walter seems to specialize in cool, crisp Brits—but both actresses are far too talented to let the material lapse into lazy binaries. McTeer’s Mary is just as shrewd as she is passionate, and Walter’s Elizabeth conceals a frayed emotional core beneath her iron exterior. Watching each woman dig into her individual role would be joy enough, so their one scene together, when they finally have the opportunity to play off each other, is rapturous.
Lloyd’s staging helps make that scene the set piece it is. Mary is enjoying a brief moment outdoors, albeit in a downpour, when she learns that Elizabeth is making an impromptu visit. Suddenly a flock of umbrella-wielding courtiers enters, pulling back to reveal the dry and pristine Queen Elizabeth standing before the drenched and spirited Queen Mary. It’s an unforgettable image, anticipating the unforgettable scene to follow.
The courtiers have their roles, too, notably Mortimer (Chandler Williams), a zealous Catholic double agent; Lord Burleigh (Nicholas Woodeson), Elizabeth’s Machiavellian adviser; and the Earl of Leicester (John Benjamin Hickey), a sycophantic politico who has wooed both queens at one time or another. But I didn’t care much about any of them, and neither, frankly, does Lloyd’s production. As if to underline who really matters, the men all wear modern business suits while Mary and Elizabeth are dressed in sixteenth-century finery. They are icons; the others are all but interchangable. Our eyes and attention and thoughts go to Mary and Elizabeth.
And Schiller gives us much to think about. As I said above, I think he is too hard on Elizabeth. Condemning her for not indulging in Mary’s overt, emotional femininity is unfair. Elizabeth is a “female king,” as Peter Oswald’s juicy new translation describes her, because she has to be. She’s playing the game the only way it could be played at the time. Just look at Mary: her naïve belief that she could marry for love and not have her husband threaten her throne directly contributed to her downfall.
I stewed about that on the way home, thinking back to McTeer and Walter’s dynamic, nuanced performances and arguing with Schiller in my mind about the contrasts he draws between the two queens and the significance of Mary’s execution and a host of other issues that Mary Stuart raises. At first I thought I was annoyed with Schiller, but then I realized how much fun I was having. I might disagree with it, but Mary Stuart is challenging, a worthy subject to ponder and debate—a theatrical jewel amid trifles.