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BWW Reviews: MARY STUART is a Royal Success at the Stratford Festival

Mary Stuart, directed by Stratford Festival Artistic Director, Antoni Cimolino; explores the complex relationship between Queen Elizabeth I of England and her cousin Mary Stuart, the former queen of Scotland-and, and in the eyes of some, a more rightful heir to the English throne. The play was originally written by Friedrich Schiller. This production is based on the adaptation written by Peter Oswald. This production is gripping from start to finish. Lucy Peacock and Seana McKenna shine as the feuding cousins. Audiences will not want to miss this fabulous production.

The play opens with Mary Being captured and imprisoned as she attempts to meet with her cousin in England after fleeing Scotland due to suspicions that she was involved in the murder of her husband.
The audience is introduced to Mary by observing her interactions with those around her, but much is also learned about the former Queen of Scots (or at least the perception of her) when she is not on stage; as she is the focus of everyone's attention. The Queen is curious about this cousin she has never met, and insecure about her own right to the throne now that her more legitimate cousin is in England. The Lords and Earls debate whether it is better for the Queen's reputation to have Mary executed for alleged treason against England, or if it makes sense for the death to happen more subtly. There are also those who argue that the treatment of Mary Stuart is unethical, and want the Queen to visit her in her prison. The motivations of all characters are vastly different, and as the sense urgency increases, everyone's layers are stripped away revealing the weaknesses that evenutually dictate the decisions made. Though this play is just as much about Elizabeth as it is Mary, it is aptly titled because the focus of everyone's attention is always Mary Stuart. In fact, upon deciding her cousin's fate, Queen Elizabeth remarks that everything that she fears in her life, is brought on by the existence of Mary Stuart.

A common theme in every show this season at Stratford, is the idea of community and the 'other' who represents the outsider to a community. Mary is a fascinating character to represent the 'other' because although she is very much an 'outsider' to England, she also have bloodlines that link her to the throne. Ironically, what essentially keeps her in the position of an outsider, is the Queen's fear that Mary Stuart is in fact, a more valid part of the royal community than she is.

As Queen Elizabeth I, Seana McKenna is commanding and cold whilst remaining very human. Elizabeth's ability to shift blame and responsibility, and her insecurities about her own lineage lead her to make decisions that both cement her place at the top of the monarch, but also alienate her to those around her. This character's motivations never seem evil, they seem human. Ms. MCKENNA ensures that the Queen never loses her humanity throughout the play. After all, what is more human than insecurity, jealousy, and indecisiveness.

As Mary Stuart, Lucy Peacock brings the charm that the character is said to have, as well as a depth and a strength about her that has the audience cheering for her. The perception of many characters is that Mary Stuart is a master at manipulation. Is the audience being manipulated too? Is Mary Stuart innocent, and just looking to live a quiet life in England, or is she secretly wanting to take the throne that she and most other Catholics believe is rightfully hers due to the illegitimacy of Elizabeth's birth--and are these two things mutually exclusive?

The scene in which Mary and Elizabeth finally meet for the first time best illustrates the powerhouse talent of both women.

The rest of the cast is equally as splendid. Geraint Wyn Davies is fabulous as the Earl of Leicester, an official suitor of the Queen, and an unofficial (and far more devoted) suitor of Mary Stuart. Mr. Wyn Davies particularly shines when he is trying to convince Queen Elizabeth to meet her cousin. His energy and wit add dimension to the play and humanity to his character. As Lord Burleigh, an excellent Ben Carlson is relentless in trying to have Mary Stuart killed-one way or the other; truly believing that the future of Protestant England is at risk so long as she is alive. Brian Dennehy's Earl of Shrewsbury is the only consistent voice of fairness, and reason throughout the play. Mr. Dennehy keeps the audience hanging on his every word...and wishing that Queen Elizabeth listened to him just as closely! As the fanatical Mortimer, Ian Lake is impressively terrifying. His misguided interpretation of Catholicism, and devotion to Mary Stuart is scary even to her. Mr. Lake plays Mortimer as someone very calculating and seemingly controlled, albeit unstable; demonstrating the deadly combination of a steady hand, yet an unsteady mind. As Mary's nurse, Patricia Collins humanizes the exiled Queen immediately. Her concern for Mary and willingness to stay with her to the very end are particularly poignant because of the grace and strength with which Ms. Collins plays this role. Another gem in this production is Dylan Trowbridge as servant, William Davison. His scene with Queen Elizabeth brings both humour and anticipation and keeps the audience fully engaged. The entire cast comes together to create a very memorable piece of art and leaves the audience wanting more.

In addition to an excellent cast, comes excellent set, lighting and sound design. The different sets designed by Eo Sharp can quickly transport the audience from a prison cell, to a palace, to a courtyard with great effect. The music utilized in the play is not just audible during the play, but also beforehand, and during the intermission. Eerie chorales echo throughout the Tom Patterson Theatre, setting the mood and the era. The much anticipated moment the cousins set eyes on one another, is captured very effectively by both the sound and lighting design and leave the audience eagerly anticipating the second half of the play.

After seeing this production, it has become very clear to this reviewer why tickets are becoming more and more difficult to secure. That said, there are still tickets available and this reviewer highly recommends that you check it out before its too late!

Mary Stuart continues its run at Stratford Festival's Tom Patterson Theatre until September 28th, 2013.

Photo Credit: David Hou

UPDATE: Stratford Festival has just announced that due to popular demand, MARY STUART has extended its run until October 11th, 2013

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