There was a deep sense of unease in the Donmar Warehouse. Bags were being checked as we had our tickets torn. Reassuring conversations home were made on mobiles, and a sense of silent watchfulness pervaded staff and audience alike. As yet more attacks on London shouted from the evening paper headlines, those of us unwilling to be deterred from attending the Donmar's latest offering settled into a surprisingly full house. The occasion, Phyllida Lloyd's production of Schiller's Mary Stuart, adapted by Peter Oswald.
Events outside seemed to suit the stark greyness of the set. A grey-blanketed bunk with ornate wooden casket against a backdrop of black painted brick. This is the castle cell of Mary Stuart, who, according to Schiller's interpretation of the troubled Tudor/Stuart dynasties, should have by right been formally acknowledged the rightful heir to the English throne. The tumult of these volatile years might all have been in vain. Mary's son, James VI of Scotland, was to accede to the throne of England after all; his mother's tragic death an unnecessary and uncomfortably bad piece of royal PR on Elizabeth 's part.
For Schiller, both the female protagonists are fla wed in their arrogant strength. Mary Stuart is portrayed as a passionate religious fundamentalist, easily flattered by male attention which comes in abundance, and even willing to murder her own spouse to achieve the lust she desires. Her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, is that hardened matriarch who is equally susceptible to male flattery, but whose machiavellian skills were only to be matched several centuries later by the Iron Lady herself.
The conflict between a Virgin Queen, whose power rests in her pseudo-hermaphroditism as she expounds her manliness and princely skill fighting in the belly of a frail woman, and the cousin who dares call her bastard to her face, is exciting and disturbing at the same time. We know the outcome from our history books, and from countless Victorian romantic paintings of a beautiful and serene Scottish queen being led to the block. At the time, the outcome for all concerned was as unknowable and unforeseeable as the outcome of the troubles we are experiencing in London are to us now.
Phyllida Lloyd has created a masterpiece of theatre. Her casting of this horrific but often gloriously funny political tragedy is impeccable. Janet McTeer plays the flighty Mary Stuart, arrogantly strutting her stuff, seemingly swayed by a kind word, a glimmer of hope and the absolute belief in her Catholicism and her personal salvation. McTeer creates the energy of sexual excess coupled with animal fear and loathing with regal aplomb.
Her protagonist, the Virgin Queen herself, is likewise a tour de force by Harriet Walter. Walter presents a queen whose arrogance and political skill is chiselled on her face. Like a marble figure of mortality carved on a renaissance tomb, Walter's every expression, every gesture, is at once menacing and enticing. This is a queen for whom men and women would lay down their lives for a kind word, a kind gesture. Walter sets a new standard for the portrayal of this famous monarch of British history, a standard that will be difficult to beat.
The supporting cast of characters are all so believable, so frightfully English and Scottish. Guy Henry is the silky smooth closet Catholic, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, whose lust for Mary Stuart is not so strong as to threaten his own political pragmatism and quest for preferment at the hands of Elizabeth . Leicester can play any situation to his advantage; with intelligence and wit and brazen good fortune he survives even tangible accusations of treason. Henry gives a delightful performance as the personable peer.
James Fleet is a sympathetic and honourable gentleman gaoler, Sir Amios Paulet, whose charge, Mary Stuart, is treated with the respect he deems her worthy of. Fleet plays moustachioed stiff upper lippedness to perfection. His nephew, Mortimer, another closet Catholic, seeks to free the Scottish queen, but demands sexual favours in return, favours the queen is unwilling to give. His ignominious end befits the arrogance of his rashness. Rory Kinnear is splendid as Mortimer, his passionate remonstrance perfectly timed and executed. Barbara Jefford is Mary's faithful nurse, Hanna. Jefford's simple dignity is in stark contrast to the emotional fragility of her mistress.
Designed by Lloyd's long-time collaborator Anthony Ward, the costumes are fascinating evocations of a female past and a male present. Whilst the two queens remain timeless in their bodiced gowns, the gentlemen of the English court wear the grey suits of contemporary political intrigue. Like Queen Victoria in conversation with Tony Blair, the production perfectly suits this anachronistic playfulness which only clarifies the gender differences and creates an immediacy of political intent which is easy to read and easy to follow.
Yet again, the Donmar Warehouse is at the cutting edge of British drama. Its reputation internationally is well served by this fine and worthy production. At nearly three hours in length, the time passed so quickly, the audience openly voicing their approval as we got up to leave. Back to the worries of London and the concerns for all our safety. What joy to have escaped in the company of two feisty queens as they fight for their own lives and their rights of supremacy.
Kevin Quarmby © 2005