This is basically Seana McKenna as Queen Elizabeth of England and Lucy Peacock as Mary Stuart, former queen of Scots, duking it out on stage. Friedrich Schiller created a fabulous fast paced play about two women in a to the death fight over power. And if that wasn’t bad enough already, the men around them try to get a hand on that power as well. It is mainly the Earl of Leicester – earstwhile lover of Mary and still collaborating with her (after all, you never know who wins this fight in the end) – who is Elisabeth’s favorite and most likely lover who tries to advance his political career one way or the other. Somehow both furthering and stalling Mary’s death sentence, he weasels himself through the political maze (beautifully depicted on the stage’s floor through light direction) to tell both women what they want to hear.
He even manages to organise a meeting (that in real life never happened, btw) between the two queens – and intermission starts at the precise moment when the two women first face each other, still gives me goosebumps.
The big confrontation doesn’t solve the problems of the two women though. Queen Mary is adamant she is the rightful queen as she wasn’t born out of wedlock and deemed a bastard by her own father, Queen Elisabeth sees her as an even bigger threat now that the cards are on the table. And the Earl of Leicester (Geraint Wyn Davies, great as always) has to think on his feet and fast as he had organised this meeting in the first place. So now he is advocating the death of Mary Stuart to remove a threat (and to clear his name in the process) – and Elisabeth, pressured by him, signs the decree which will have Mary beheaded. She then hands it over to a servant, not long in her service, with no concrete advice whom to hand the decree. unfortunately the young man hands over the document to Lord Burleigh (Ben Carlson!!) who has Mary executed. this of course leads to uproar and to placate her people the young servant has to die. But things go from bad to even worse when it turns out that all the accusations against Mary Stuart had been made up under pressure.
So when a devastated Elisabeth wants to confer with Leicester… but … he is on a ship to France.
Schiller’s play is archetypical in the way he shows the fight for power and of course the fight for the right religion – Mary of Scots was catholic, Elisabeth was not. so the bigger cause behind the war for power was undoubtedly – will the Pope win or the anglican church? The play was written in 1800 – during and shortly after the French Revolution when it already became clear that killing a king doesn’t equal political bliss, but yet another dictator with a bigger title doing the same as before (Emperor Napoleon) . It also foreshadows the era of “Aufklärung” where science became more important than religion, showing that religious fanatism leads to war and not to enlightenment.
All in all the play is eerily current and frighteningly so and it has been translated with care, giving it a bit of a modern touch without being too overtly “new”. Another brilliant example of how to do a classic in today’s theatre.