It’s Schiller’s play, revisited by the magnificent Kate Mulvany. And thus it is amazing. It’s no longer spoken in verse (and thanks and many thanks for that), and she took inspiration over translation (and many thanks for that as well), but the main focus points are the same as in Schiller’s play. Two women in power, and yet powerless, in a court of powerhungry, conniving men who view women either as frail and soft and thus inferior or as dangerous witches who use their sex to lure men and thus have to be erased, at best in the name of god. It’s Mary’s kindhearted jailer Paulet who in his male centred way of seeing things finds the words in the end: if only you two women would have found a way of communicating. To which Mary answers, wearily: if only you men had made some room for us, we all could have thrived (I’m paraphrasing).
I have, because I am a nerd and also because everything else in this new play is absolutely fantastic, one little thing to bemoan. Schiller has Leicester fleeing the country after Mary’s execution, with one of the courtiers icily and bitingly and maybe just a bit gleefully declaring: Lord Leicester sends his apologies, he is on his way to France, when Elizabeth is asking for him. In this adaption Leicester simply walks away, larmoyantly uttering ‘home’ when Elizabeth asks where he’s going. I do consider Schiller’s approach better.
The story itself is even more poweful today, in times of #metoo and the heightened awareness of how men execute their male privilege over their female counterparts. A time where this was not only the rule but also the law, as seen by a woman writer/actor (who is a f***ing genius, btw) makes the story of two warring women even more poignant. It is also a gift when the two feuding women are played by Helen Thomson and Caroline Brazier. The men are written (and rightly so) as archetypical males, not stereotypes, but examples of common male behaviour. There’s Burleigh, the career politician with his own agenda, ignoring everyone else; Shrowsbury, the elderly philosopher who served for many years, who walks away in the end to wash his hands of what happened; Leicester, the lap dog who stonuops low by finally even attempting to rape Elizabeth, but in the end gains nothing; Mortimer, the hot headed and not very bright follower with the blue inked skin ‘with pretty pictures’, who aimes too high and therefore loses; the ambassador whose skills leave him finally over yet another diversion tactic; and the new secretary, who breaks under the pressure an insecure/cornered queen inflicts on him. And then there’s Paulet, the jailer to Mary Stuart, who after 19 years of looking after a then beautiful, spirited, intelligent woman has found affection for her, much to the chagrin of his wife and daughters. But he is also loyal to his queen and torn between two women who have more in common than first meets the eye. Simon Burke’s layered portrayal of power vs helplessness, affection vs rejections gives us more than glimpses into Paulet’s soul. Yes, I’m biased, as you all know and I don’t deny, but his acting lifts this character up and is a joy to watch. And yes, I did cry in the end – not for Mary, mind you, but for Paulet who was not able to save her and has to live with the knowledge of it….
Beautiful how Mulvany and the amazing director Lee Lewis create echoes that draw you in. There is the start of the play – total darkness, chopping sounds – it’s Mortimer, making kindle of a piano in search of Mary’s letters, yet another nail in the coffin of Mary’s case before the judges. The play ends again in total darkness, chopping sounds make the audience witness to a very botched (and historically correct, I might add) beheading of Mary.
And then there are the prayers. Because both women, so very different in their upbringing, their experiences, their lives, are deeply religious, even driven by their different faiths that are so similar that when the two queens pray, they sound the same, they act the same, they gain the same kind of consolation from it.
In the end both women are alone. Mary, because she is isolated from potential co conspirators, and Elizabeth, because she can’t rely on any of the men in her court who all have only their own agenda in mind.
The men in the play stand for violence; violence against women and violence in order to gain power or love or both.
The women, always in danger of being crushed by the male power plays, peruse their femininity, a more subtle approach yet equally or even more successful. Mary sweetly convinces Paulet she only wants to go home to Scotland, to her son, and only reveals her true feelings at the very end, when she is alone, as a final confession. Elizabeth ruthlessly uses her new secretary so that she doesn’t have to take responsibility for the death sentence to be carried out.
Paulet is the heart of the play. Torn between his loyalty to his queen, Gloriana, Elizabeth, and the affection and admiration he harbours for Mary, he tries to mediate even though his efforts keep being in vain. In his last scene with Mary his good byes are heartbreakingly personal. Not only as he losing his purpose, his work, if you like, but also a woman he perceived as a close friend, and as a challenge to his intellect – something his wife and daughters obviously aren’t able to be to him. After all a single mistake of his could’ve lead to the death of a queen – hers or Elizabeth’s. It’s not easy to be the keeper of queens!
His uncle gone with the incriminating letters, Mortimer uncovers his true feelings toward Mary. He’d insulted her just moments ago, but now professes his allegiance … his whole body is covered in tattoos of Mary, much to the dismay of the queen, who has heard enough promises and wants her life restored after 19 years in prison.
Enter Burleigh, who brings the verdict of her trial. Guilty of treason – and while Mary seems calm at first, her temperament gets the better of her and in a revealing outburst she destroys the picture of the warmhearted misunderstood woman she had been projeting so far. The fat philanderer and the whore who gave birth to a bastard is not an apt description of a queen.
Unfortunately the actor playing Burleigh is mostly screaming, which rather undermines the picture of being the head counsel of Elizabeth.
Elizabeth , who has her own problems. At 51 she clings to power while everybody in her court wants her to marry and have children (Leicester of course doesn’t, he helpfully points out that she’s too old to procreate). The french ambassador tries to get a definite yes to the French dauphin’s marriage proposal, but all he gets is a definite maybe. And Shrowsbury was on the receiving end of a bucket full of blood, meant for the queen. Still he is the only one who speaks against the death penalty Burleigh wants to cast on Mary.