The story of the life of Mary Stuart continues to intrigue more than 400 years after her death. Last month, a new film about the Scottish monarch (with Saoirse Ronan in the title role) opened in Australian cinemas.
Sydney Theatre Company has begun its 2019 season with a brand-new adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s play, Mary Stuart, which was first staged in Germany in 1800. Rather than canvassing her entire life, Schiller’s play focuses on the final days of Mary’s life, during which time Mary was imprisoned in England. In fact, she spent the last 19 years of her life in captivity, originally because of her suspected role in the murder of her husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley – suspicions that ultimately saw her abdicate the Scottish throne and seek the protection of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, the fifth and final English monarch of the Tudor dynasty.
But the danger of an association with someone potentially involved in the death of the Scottish King wasn’t the only reason Elizabeth and her supporters kept Mary in custody. It had long been Mary’s claim that she was the legitimate ruler of England, a notion strongly supported by many Catholics. Mary was therefore seen as a real threat to Elizabeth’s sovereignty and as consequently needing to be hidden away from the world. The complication of her royal status inhibited the natural urge to have her executed, though ultimately Mary was convicted of treason for her alleged involvement in the attempted assassination of Elizabeth and was executed in 1587.
This new adaptation of Mary Stuart, by award-winning Australian playwright and actor Kate Mulvany, is a strong rejection of the notion that the two queens were merely pawns in a game owned by the powerful men around them. Told through the lens of a woman, this interpretation of events sees Mary (Caroline Brazier) and Elizabeth (Helen Thomson) in control and having to own the consequences of their own decisions, but who are restrained by a world that mandates that two powerful women cannot co-exist; that dictates, instead, they be pitted against one another in a kind of winner-takes-all contest.
Directed by Lee Lewis, Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre Company, this story depicts two flawed leaders guided by rival core beliefs but who, it’s suggested, could live side-by-side, were the politics and prevailing attitudes of the time not centred around total domination. There’s even an imagined meeting between Elizabeth and Mary (history says they, in fact, never met) where we believe for a moment that Elizabeth won’t condemn Mary to death. But the proselytising voices in each woman’s ear suggest that alignment is impossible.
STC’s Mary Stuart is gripping, first-class theatre that beautifully marries history with the contemporary and reality with imagination. Mulvany’s adaptation takes us back to sixteenth century England to tell a timeless story of power and control. It doesn’t take a side and exposes the complexity of both of the central women. Most significantly, it foregrounds their story and portrays them as sympathetic human beings, constrained by the brutal realities of Reformation England and by the ever-present threat of one’s own demise.
In its leading roles, this production has two of our finest actors. Brazier’s Mary is an imperfect heroine, sticking closely to her long-held convictions but having taken a path that has involved engaging in some nefarious acts. It is a depiction of a woman who finds her life in jeopardy because of both her own actions and the fears of others. It is a compelling performance.
Similarly, Thomson is excellent as Elizabeth. She portrays a woman with undeniable presence and considerable intelligence, determined to protect the Protestant legacy of her father, King Henry VIII. But there’s something rather regular about this queen, and while decisions fall at her feet, she’s influenced by dominant men in her life, specifically Lord Burleigh (Tony Cogin), her chief advisor, and the Pope, whose ex-communication of her is the catalyst for a decision to send a strong message to the Catholic Church and its followers. Thomson’s performance does not provide us the conventional portrait of Elizabeth, but is instead wonderfully human and surprising.
All of the performances here are impressive. Cogin is suitably noxious as Elizabeth’s advisor, the strongest advocate for Mary’s execution; Peter Carroll lends integrity to the Earl of Shrewsbury; and Simon Burke evokes sympathy as the man charged with being Mary’s warden for her entire time in England. But every performer here (the cast also includes Fayssal Bazzi, Andrew McFarlane, Rahel Romahn, Matthew Whittet and Darcey Wilson) makes a contribution.
Elizabeth Gadsby’s set, consisting principally of heavy timber stairs and panels, covers the expansive stage and perfectly locates us in Fotheringhay Castle, where Mary spent her final days, as well as the royal residence of Elizabeth I. Lewis and Gadsby have together succeeded in evoking a genuine sense of time and place. Mel Page’s costumes are similarly noteworthy, ranging from the traditional royal regalia worn by Elizabeth I to the contrasting prison garb of Mary. Paul Jackson’s wonderful lighting choices and Max Lyandvert’s evocative soundscape integrally enhance the physical production.
STC’s Mary Stuart is riveting, thought-provoking and impeccably-crafted theatre. It’s a spectacular start to the company’s 2019 season, revitalising a classic work with remarkable success. This is a must-see production.
MARY STUART – SEASON DETAILS
Presented by Sydney Theatre Company
Dates: Playing now until 2 March, 2019
Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre
Box Office: 02 9250 1777 www.sydneytheatre.com.au