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Sunday, 2 June 2013

Mary Stuart: Aims for the Jugular but Nicks the Surface

Mary Stuart, by Friedrich Schiller; adaptation by Peter Oswald

Directed by Antoni Cimolino; designed by Eo Sharp

The Story: Mary Stuart, the Catholic Queen of Scotland has been imprisoned in England for past crimes and for having a legitimate claim to the throne, currently occupied by her cousin, the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I. While Elizabeth is pressured by her coterie of councillors both to show mercy to Mary and to have her executed, Mary grasps at thin threads of power and narrow avenues of escape, and an orchestrated meeting of the cousins leaves one of the queens reeling from a series of verbal smacks to the face.

Friedrich Schiller's early 19th-century play, following on the heels of the brutality of the French Revolution, is a brilliant debate over the nature of power, justice, religion and morality, with a host of intrigues and well-rounded characters manipulating each other to vie for the top spot. Peter Oswald's translation reads like a political thriller with crackling dialogue and pacing, and scenes of devastating intelligence. Two female monarchs in a world run by men, both with legitimate claims to power, both in prisons of one kind or another... which is more legitimate? Which one is morally correct? Which one has a truer sense of justice? Which one has a truer sense of self?

Lucy Peacock as Mary Stuart. Photo by David Hou.
Schiller wipes the floor with Shakespeare in terms of clarity; there is no waffling Duke making ambiguous choices here (see Measure for Measure). There is no doubt by play's end which queen is the better heroine.

Which is why, in watching the production directed by Antoni Cimolino, one wonders where all the ambiguity comes from. Instead of two rulers masterfully manipulating those around them and each other, we are witness to anxiety from one queen and fire from another.

The fire is provided by Lucy Peacock, who manages Mary's inherent sensuality with ease, as well her transformation - or transubstantiation, as Schiller wrote it - into a woman at peace with her past and her impending death. Regal yet raw, humble yet imposing, Ms. Peacock's queen is sublime.

Lucy Peacock as Mary Stuart; Seana McKenna as Elizabeth I.
Photo by David Hou.

The anxiety is provided by Seana McKenna as Elizabeth, but she does not begin that way. In her first scene she portrays a queen holding cards close to her chest, subtly putting down the French ambassadors, even as she seems to accept their Prince's wish for a wedded alliance between them. But unease surfaces early in her Elizabeth and does not go away until the play's very end - too late to show a core of steel in a "Female King". The angst is a compelling view of Elizabeth as a woman, something she feels unable to be as England's ruler, yet puzzling; Ms. McKenna is a pro at amazed innocence coupled with sly glances and dead pan, deadly delivery, so why her Elizabeth conveyed more, rather than equal amounts of, angst and shrewdness is unclear.

Nevertheless, her scene with Ms. Peacock is a verbal slap-fest, riveting in its shared passion, fury and what-might-have-been pathos.

Left to right: Ian Lake as Mortimer; Geraint Wyn Davies as Leicester.
Photo by David Hou.
The role of the duplicitous Leicester is filled with magnanimous charm by Geraint Wyn Davies, who is so gosh-darn likeable that the oiliness of the character is sacrificed to a comedic boyish panic, although the spinelessness of Leicester comes through in almost every gesture. Mr. Wyn Davies nevertheless gives us a Leicester who is also a master plotter, albeit one who acts in the moment than by any long-term planning.

Ben Carlson as Burleigh. Photo by David Hou.
Leicester's chief foil, Lord Burleigh, is superbly played by Ben Carlson. Announcing himself as, "the envoy of the Court of Justice", Mr. Carlson gives us a Burleigh who sees himself as the ultimate defender of the state, a man who literally feels the weight of the world on his shoulders, and one whose shock at being banished  - or having been played by his queen - at play's end is palpable.

Left to right: Brian Dennehy as Shrewsbury, Ben Carlson as Burleigh, Seana McKenna as Elizabeth,  Robert
Persichini as Kent. Photo by David Hou.
The voice of reason in the play belongs to the Earl of Shrewsbury, played with gravity by Brian Dennehy. Here we have a man working in the best interests of both queen and state, and Mr. Dennehy gives Shrewsbury a serious watchfulness, and conveys a multiple of emotions through his wonderfully nuanced voice and the smallest of movements.

This is in contrast to Ian Lake's performance, who fails to convince as Mortimer, a man who is supposedly so moved by the sights and sounds of Catholic worship in Italy that he secretly converts and will do anything to save the Catholic queen. Perhaps this was a deliberate choice, an attempt to fool the audience since later it seems Mortimer will be a double agent for Elizabeth, but a person who speaks raptures without any of the body language to back it up would not fool the silliest of queens, and Mary Stuart is no fool, not in text, and not in Ms. Peacock's performance.

There is much in the text relative to current events in a post 9/11 society, even though ours is not led by women (yet - apologies to the four female premiers).  Elizabeth, once disowned by her father the King and imprisoned in the Tower of London, has been raised to the throne by nobles of the land, but feels immense pressure from her counsel and her people to both show mercy to her cousin - who had run to her as a refugee for help - and also to execute her to firmly stamp out any remaining "closet Catholicism".  Mary is charged with the murder of her second husband in Scotland, but it is the English who imprison her, in contravention to the laws of nations, and has not been allowed trial by her peers - her only peer being another King or Queen - but by noblemen of another country. She has been held for years without trial or conviction - just held.

The intent may have been to fire a shot across the bow of current politicos in their back-room dealings, shifts of accountability and  fear mongering among the public; the snappy textual debates about gender, justice and law have audiences oohing with recognition, and the presence of two modern secret-service men and coils of razor wire certainly give a subtle nudge in that direction, but unfortunately this production of Mary Stuart comes across as slightly more historical than political. This by no means negates the fact that this is an intense and strong production that should not be missed.

Mary Stuart continues in repertory until September 21 at the Tom Patterson Theatre.

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