Schiller’s Mary Stuart: a play of mighty opposites for two great actresses


Up for grabs: the nightly coin toss determine who plays the Queen and who plays her vicitm. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

A coin toss … or rather a mesmerizing coin spin, with an actor whirling the coin in a shallow golden bowl. That highly symbolic event launches the performance of Friedrich Schiller‘s Mary Stuart every evening. The two lead actresses –  identically dressed Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson – are as inevitably paired as the two beats of an iamb. They await the result at opposite sides of the circular stage. When the verdict, heads or tails, is called out, the 15-or-so performers assembled onstage turn and offer a sweeping bow to one of the two women. The other has her black velvet jacket pulled from her back and is hustled to the offstage jail. Fitting, because Mary Stuart, retelling the confrontation between Queen Elizabeth I of England and the Frenchwoman popularly known as Mary Queen of Scots is a play “constructed around doubles, mirrors, equivalences, differences and mighty opposites,” according to the program notes. “It has also allowed the first word of the evening to anticipate its ending: ‘Heads’.”

Juliet Stevenson as Mary consoles her women. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

My dozen days in England this month are whizzing by like a spinning coin, but I wanted to make sure I crammed in at least one night in the West End. The Duke of York Theatre’s production was the chosen destination. I read the great German playwright’s 1800 recounting of the fatal pas de deux for the first time a few years ago, and so I shoveled my two-buck Dover Thrift edition (unabridged) to the theater with me. To say Robert Icke‘s adaptation takes liberties somewhat understates the case (I splurged and bought that version of the play as well, which was sold in the cloakroom like contraband), but his script, in a loose blank verse, makes for a stunning evening. (And surprisingly, I don’t think any of the reviews noted that this is a verse play – which my ear could pick up before my mind knew.)

Icke’s words on the subject:

“The heartbeat of an iamb closely echoes the human heartbeat. A continuing rhythm, like the baseline in a piece of jazz, and one that gives life. It gives no instruction to the actor. It is not to be counted or observed – though also not to be ignored. Hamlet warns us that – like all great art – it’s a matter of balance: discretion and also wildness (‘too tame’ is deadly).

The verse is the structure of the pipe. The words are the water. The pressure of the jet of water is a combination of the two things. The sound and the sense are two sides of the same coin. Inseparable, neither could exist without the other; ad mutually enriching.”

Goethe’s buddy: Well done!

Take the queen’s short speech to the French ambassador, as he tries to seal the deal on a betrothal between the French prince and the English monarch:

A little ring. A little circled gold.
This ring means different things in different places.
It’s duty – but it’s also slavery:
two rings can start a marriage – or a chain.
You may take this – and give it to His Highness
it’s – well – non-binding. It’s not yet a chain
but it could grow – and bind me to a king.

On the evening I sat in the balcony, the coin toss decided Stevenson for the role of Mary, and Williams as the sleek, sinewy, suited-up English queen. I would have liked a chance to see the roles reversed. I suspect everyone who attended one night or another wished the same. Too bad there’s only a few more days before the production ends.

I’ve been working too hard on another project to add much to a production about which there is much to say. So let me refer you to the The Financial Times review here, or this one from The Times here.

Lia Williams, Juliet Stevenson in matched roles. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)


Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.