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 therefore inferior or as dangerous witches who use their sexuality 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 stoops 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’ of Mary, 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 it’s 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 of her schemes to gain the throne she deems hers. Elizabeth ruthlessly uses her new secretary so that she doesn’t have to take responsibility for the death sentence to be carried out.
Paulet, played by a magnificent Simon Burke, is the beating, compassionate heart of the play. Clearly 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 is 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! The way he brings the crushing loss he feels, the sadness and helplessness to life is amazing. He is a broken man with nothing left to live for.
In the end everybody loses. There are no winners in the dirty games of politics. (which hasn’t changed in the hundreds of years since the historic queens warred and since Schiller wrote his play).
Thomson and Brazier are amazing, two fantastic actresses who command the stage. Mortimer Fayssal Bazzi plays the useful follower who has no clue and dies without ever coming close to understanding. Leicester Andrew McFarlane … I wasn’t fond of the way he portrayed the queen’s almost lover. I missed determination and intelligence and don’t think it was an intended directorial choice. Burleigh – the actor was mostly screaming, probably mistaking volume with emotion.
The one dancing scene was beautifully choreographed, creating an enchanting fairy like scene on an empty stage.
My pet peeve with the Roslyn packer: it’s 2019, there’s still no WiFi. Not good!