In modern times we are not accustomed to worshipping our political leaders, or even giving the benefit of the doubt. On the contrary, for the most part, we are unwilling to even grant that they are human, treating the word ‘politician’ as though it denotes some potentially contaminated other species. Shifting back in time to 16th century England, when Divine Right was the Electoral College, requires a distinct cognitive leap for the modern audience.
Fortunately, Mary Stuart, as portrayed by the explosively accessible Janet McTeer, in Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart (translated by Peter Oswald) is enthralling enough to eliminate the need for thought at all: She demands our attention, lures our senses, and holds our hearts with a blend of power and tenderness. Granted, she is the underdog. Her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, has her locked in a tower. The guard charged with keeping her has ransacked all of her possessions, and she’s just been found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. But part of Mary’s charm, and McTeer’s ability, is imbuing this doomed character with an elegant and all-encompassing strength.
Even in her most devastated moments she is dynamic, indefatigable, and steers a straight course. In some ways, Schiller and director Phyllida Lloyd have given the actress a gift by giving her one simple goal: Her freedom. Thus, McTeer can shape-shift and even crack jokes without losing a sense of her character. She owns it completely and thus moves quickly through quandaries and emotions without ever seeming inconsistent.
Queen Elizabeth has a less clear motive, and while McTeer’s achievement is the nuance she brings to a potentially one dimensional character, Harriet Walter’s greater challenge is channeling ferocity and continuity into a Queen who does not have any idea, or opinion, about what to do with her troublesome, compelling cousin. In many ways, the two women represent complementary polarities. Mary is the Queen renowned for her beauty, passionate spirit, and the transcendent devotion she inspires. But after years of foolish affairs and indiscreet antics, she is the one who assesses and calculates with clarity and reason.
Conversely, Elizabeth, neither wild nor emotional by nature, makes all her decisions as though she is being chased—and indeed, she is surrounded by enemies and supporters who may turn on her in an instant. She is also, as it turns out, plagued by envy of her beautiful cousin Mary, an emotion that Walters embodies to the full extent of its ugliness. She carries Elizabeth from being a somewhat non-descript, confused ruler through the arc of becoming an utterly dislikable human. The audience is left with the feeling that Mary is too beautiful to rule effectively, and Elizabeth is not beautiful enough.
In that sense, however, her transition into the Virgin Queen is far less dramatic, and more self-evident, than the one undergone by Cate Blanchet in the film Elizabeth. Walters is the less showy of the two actresses, but her ability to ensnare our attention while playing a petty, manipulative, and untrustworthy power-monger is not to be overlooked. She is chillingly serpent-like, compared with her cousin who literally lights up the sleek, gray stark stage. But the quality both women share is that they strive to bury their personal passions and motives.
The modernist set, an open space filled with a few pieces of moving furniture to indicate scene changes, accentuates that purity of intention. It is no accident that the imposing drab walls of Mary’s jail cell also represent the rooms of Elizabeth’s castle. Mary’s head may be the one closest to the block, but a misstep could lose Elizabeth the throne, and thus her life. Both aim at self-preservation, and to that end, try to be judicious, do what is right, and please the people.
Not so with their male advisors. While Mary and Elizabeth are rich, multi-faceted, and intangibly unique, the men in the play exhibit the worst qualities we expect in politicians. They selfishly assert their personal ambitions and private, irrelevant desires in a way that calls to mind government scandals from the past 25 years. Their lack of individual fiber is accentuated by their dress: While Mary and Elizabeth wear period costumes, the men are clad in identical, contemporary suits.
The worst of this minion is the Earl of Leicester, former devotee of Mary’s and Elizabeth’s lover at the time of the play. In the role, John Benjamin Hickey is simpering, demanding, and manages to play a worthless character with great focus. But ultimately, juxtaposed with the two Queens, his failings are tragic. His behavior, and that of the other men, drive the Queens to misery and personal defeat. As is so often the case, in Mary Stuart the women win our hearts, but the men win the war.
Mary Stuart runs through August 16th