25 January 2017

Mary Stuart at Almeida Theatre made a dark history entertaining

Mary Stuart escaped my attention when it first went on sale, mostly because I had never heard of it or of its author Friedrich Schiller. My interest grew with the flood of good reviews it got but by then the run was completely sold out.

Then some more dates were added and some repeated checking of the theatre website on the day when they were announced got me seat Circle A7 for £38.

Almeida is not the easiest theatre to get to for me so I left work promptly (i.e. early) to get the train to Vauxhall and then the Victoria Line to Highbury and Islington before walking the last kilometre to the theatre.

I needed some food and was satisfied, if not exactly ecstatic, to get the last cheese sandwich in brown bread that they had in the theatre cafe. It had some exotic salad in it but it was just a cheese sandwich. Still, it did the job as did the coffee that I had with it.

I climbed the familiar steep stairs from the road up to the circle and looked down at a fairly standard round wooden stage. I was expecting, and hoping for, something modern like the poster and was disappointed not to see this. The dress code was better and reasonably contemporary, e.g. the men all wore suits though some of the colours were from another decade when other colours than dark blue and black were allowed.

The play started unusually with the spin of a coin. Lia Williams correctly called heads so she got to be Elizabeth I for the evening and Juliet Stevenson was Mary Stuart. That was more than a gimmick to show off both actresses' abilities; it also made the point at the very start of the play that they were similar people, both women and both queens in a time when almost all power lay with men.

Most of the action took place on one day, Mary's last. The plot was Shakespearean (though the play was written by a German three hundred years after Shakespeare) with various courtiers lobbying Elizabeth for and against Mary, but mostly for their own ends. Sometimes these aspirations were pecuniary and others religious with the queens being the proxies for a war between Christian sects. The two queens sat in the centre of this confusion without being drawn into it, both were calm and certain while plots were made and allegiances broken in their names. It was good dramatic stuff.

The play was all about the dialogue and that was rich, fluid and well delivered, especially by the two stars but not just by them.

The play also dealt with the politics well and made a strong point over the uncertainty of Elizabeth's intention in Mary's death. There was also some uncertainty over who had won the encounter between the queens with Mary dying resolute and certain and Elizabeth forced to behave according to expectations placed on her. We knew the ending so it was nice to see it approached in an unexpected and ambiguous way, though I was slightly fooled by the fake ending before the coda.

Mary Stuart was a fine historical play in the Shakespeare tradition and this production gave the actors the time and space to make the most of their characters and their words. It was an excellent night out.

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