BWW Review: MARY STUART, Almeida Theatre

A coin toss at the start of each performance determines whether Lia Williams or Juliet Stevenson plays the role of Mary Stuart. The winner plays Queen Elizabeth I, while the loser takes on the role of Mary Queen of Scots.

At the performance I saw, Stevenson was Elizabeth and Williams Mary. Both women appear as mirror images of each other, dressed identically until the toss of the coin decides their fate. Williams was quickly stripped of her jewels, her shoes roughly removed and her jacket harshly ripped from her body before the cast proceeded to bow before Stevenson.

Robert Icke's adaptation of Friedrich Schiller's play is utterly compelling. Stevenson is lonely and imperious as Elizabeth; being pushed into marrying for political reasons she is both independent, yet reliant on male advisors, including the Earl of Leicester (John Light), who was historically said to be Elizabeth's favourite at Court and the man she truly loved.

The Queen is pulled in different directions by her advisors and the public: some want her to behead Mary, others call for her pardon and release. Stevenson is captivating as a woman torn between her heart and her head, constantly changing her mind about what she thinks is the right thing to do about her cousin.

Williams as Mary is the polar opposite of the Queen - she is poised and collected but with sharp wit and intelligence. She examines the evidence given in her trial, detailing every flaw and maintaining her innocence. Her beauty is world-renowned and she does not allow herself to be bullied by men; instead, she often uses her sexuality as a weapon to taunt them. When she finally meets her cousin, initially falling at her feet, begging her for forgiveness, her attitude quickly changes and she threatens the Queen and launches herself at her in anger.

Rudi Dharmalingam is brilliant as Mortimer, a nephew of a member of the Queen's court who earns Elizabeth's trust, enough for her to subtly hint that she would like him to murder Mary and free her from the burden of signing the death warrant herself. He is however a secret Catholic who is determined to free Mary by any means necessary. Likewise both Alan Williams and Vincent Franklin as Talbot and Burleigh respectively are convincing and captivating as they try to persuade Elizabeth that their opinion is the right one.

The intimate setting of the Almeida adds to the experience, with Hildegard Bechtler opting for a circular arena, reminiscent of a colosseum. This is apt given that both women are literally fighting for their lives - Mary battling the death sentence she's been handed and Elizabeth the numerous assassination attempts by outraged supporters of Queen Mary.

The sparse environment, clear of clutter, leaves the characters and the unfolding story as the sole focus. Jackie Shemeseh's lighting is used effectively, bathing the stage in golden light when Elizabeth is onstage, with colder light emphasising Mary's dank, dark prison cell.

Some may be put off by the running time of three hours, but this is an innovative and unique piece of theatre with light-hearted comedic moments, breaking up the intense drama. The final scene between the two women is particularly breathtaking and powerful.

Mary Stuart at Almeida Theatre until 21 January, 2017

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

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From This Author Laura Jones