Lust, pride, skulduggery: this riveting drama about Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I is a fight to the death between two killer queens. And it’s stunning. On the night I saw it, Lia Williams was Elizabeth and Juliet Stevenson Mary. But they switch. Their roles are cast by a flipped coin at the start of each performance; the winner going on to keep her head; the loser losing it. It’s a fine bit of dramatic judgment which is typical of this supremely sexy and intelligent production by renaissance man Robert Icke. Icke not only directs; he also translates and adapts and has stripped down a slightly fusty 200-year-old Schiller play about 400-year-old events and rebuilt it as something modern and timeless: muscular, lucid and thrumming with moral power.
Forget farthingales and folderols. The action erupts on a bare black stage, circled with golden benches for Elizabeth and brick walls for Mary, who is under castle arrest in hostile England and at the centre of a tangled web of Catholic terrorist plots on her cousin’s life. The set works as an intensely focused lens on the superb actors and what they do and say; you feel intimately at the heart of what’s happening, seeing their blood rise and their tears fall; as tension builds, their impact becomes colossal.
Schiller’s play is based on a historical story whose time seems to have come round again, probably because it is – unusually – a face-off between two powerful women (Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie star in an upcoming film, helmed by London theatre director Josie Rourke).
Caught between the intrigues of her all-star male court, Elizabeth prevaricates about sending her cousin to the block. Their debates about the rights of refugees, the threat of terrorism and the scope of international law feel freshly relevant. But it’s the passion and the violence which powers this – expressed in a stylised dynamic where the actors claw and grope each other like ballet dancers on crack. It’s magnetic, but also accurately diagrams the situation of strong women in a brutal male-dominated culture.
At first, Williams’s Elizabeth is one of the boys, smoking and bantering in the Tudor boardroom. Later, she’s dominated by slimy politician Burleigh (Elliot Levey) and predatory charmer, Leicester (John Light), finally emerging to rule them all but locking up her soul in the process.
Williams and Stevenson are truly amazonian in these roles, bringing depth and strength to Mary and tormented charisma to Elizabeth. The made-up scene where they meet in the woods and theatrically knock seven bells out of each other is a treat to behold.
The men are outstanding too, especially the queen’s conscience, grizzled Yorkshireman Talbot (Michael Byrne), who stumps around Elizabeth’s court like he’s Geoff Boycott on ‘Test Match Special’, saying what no one else can or will. This is so much more than just another bodice-ripper for Little Englanders: it’s an unmissable modern drama. A show to lose your head and your heart to.