#1: Mary Stuart, Almeida Theatre

*CONTAINS SPOILERS*

Icke has sexualised Schiller’s bare-boned political drama and centred it on the two women who could have so easily been in each other’s position. The blurb for Icke’s Hamlet comes to mind:

‘ghost/devil
acting/madness
be/not be’

But in this case:

‘Catholic/Protestant
virgin/whore
head of state/beheaded’

Who plays Mary and who plays Elizabeth is decided by Leicester (John Light) spinning a coin in a bowl at the beginning of the show. I saw a matinee and an evening show on the same day; at the matinee, Williams called heads. The coin landed tails, so Stevenson played Elizabeth, Williams Mary. For evening performances on the same day, however, the performances are always flipped. The coin is still spun in the off-gold metallic bowl, but no one calls heads or tails: the roles are already decided.

There are effectively two versions of the same production depending on who is playing who. Williams is of the school of Pinter; Stevenson is a RSC veteran. Stevenson has a different, more restrained way of acting: she can speak Shakespearean verse as if it was written yesterday and this comes across in Mary Stuart.

Williams sometimes struggles to make the occasional antiquated word in the verse (eg a random ‘ach’ in the middle of a line) sound natural. But she plays anyone neurotic or erotic so well it’s immediately obvious why Icke cast her as Klytemnestra in his Oresteia. Williams (most of the time) feels more sensual, dangerous and thrilling than Stevenson. Her Mary really could topple England with her sexuality: something conveyed in Icke’s script that Stevenson doesn’t seem to get to. Take the scene where Mary is let out of her cell to roam the park outside Fotheringay: Stevenson runs around the stage, drawing the neat parameter of her newly widened prison walls. Williams runs a little, but she also shouts and screams in a way that doesn’t feel right for the moment. Stevenson is always restrained: sometimes she could go further.

In the play, Mary and Elizabeth only meet once, orchestrated by Leicester, at Fotheringay. But as Elizabeth, alone, prepares to sign Mary’s death warrant, Mary comes in: doesn’t say anything, just sits there. And regardless of who is playing queen, Elizabeth kisses Mary. Given how flirtatious Williams’ Elizabeth is, it makes sense: but Stevenson as Elizabeth kissing Williams as Mary gives a slightly strange feel to the scene. Stevenson’s Elizabeth is less erotic in her behaviour: the kiss makes less sense. Stevenson performs the text very well: Williams goes beyond the text, adding in little details like kissing Vincent Franklin’s snide and sharp Burleigh (as Mary). Stevenson’s Elizabeth loves Leicester, will sleep with Mortimer. Williams’ Elizabeth loves Leicester, will sleep with Mortimer, has slept with Kent, wants to sleep with Davison. Williams’ Elizabeth runs her council as a sort of male harem, men she keeps round to fuck.

Icke’s text, for all its sexuality, stays close to Schiller’s play. There are some features of Schiller’s play that don’t sit right with the audiences but the brilliant performances of the ensemble iron those out. Mortimer (Rudi Dharmalingam) switches very quickly from promising to rescue Mary to attempting to rape her: Icke portrays him as a religious radical who believes that ‘God put you purposely into my hand – you’re mine’. Leicester manipulates Elizabeth into meeting Mary by explaining his fantasy (possibly sexual): ‘I have a secret fantasy that / I could – once – in secret – / see you next to her’. Elizabeth feels totally humiliated by the meeting but the actors as directed by Icke make the line ‘I’m / doing this for you because I / know I’m hurting you’ seem more like Elizabeth’s political concession to smooth out her private life than her being Leicester’s puppet.

In the final act, Elizabeth being dressed (it’s a passive act) in historical costume, rather than the beautiful black velvet pantsuits (with flares!) Williams and Stevenson wear for most of the play, on the circular wooden stage, comes out as a slight reference to Shakespeare’s Globe. Elizabeth is dressed by the male characters in what she wore in the Ditchley portrait; it’s un-Icke-like, but this is a play about history and how history is made. Both queens are aware that they will be remembered. However, we know Icke’s views on the Globe:

Icke’s choice to dress the Elizabeth actor up as the Ditchley Elizabeth is a brave one. Ivo van Hove dressed Chris Nietvelt and Halina Reijn as the historical Elizabeth and Mary, respectively, for the final scene in his production: Icke must have been inspired by this. Elizabeth is dressed up onstage by the male characters of the play, wig, make-up, et al.: this is a comment on how trapped Elizabeth is (‘the crown is just a prison cell with jewels’). The dress is so obstructive, in fact, that the actor wearing it can barely walk. We’ve seen either Williams or Stevenson order men around but now we see Elizabeth as she really was, or as we believe she really was.

NPG 2561; Queen Elizabeth I ('The Ditchley portrait') by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

My favourite line:

‘Still no one here. No message. Is it night?
Does the sun still carve its circle in the sky?
This waiting is a prison. Is it done?
The day is just a flash inside the night…
I feel such terror I can hardly breathe.
But who can say I did it?’

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