‘Mary Stuart’ review

Theatre, Drama
5 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(4user reviews)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan Lia Williams (Elizabeth)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan Juliet Stevenson (Mary Stuart) 
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan John Light (Leicester), Lia Williams (Elizabeth) and Elliot Levey (Burleigh)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan Juliet Stevenson (Mary Stuart) and Carmen Munroe (Kennedy)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan Juliet Stevenson (Mary Stuart) 
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan Lia Williams (Elizabeth) and Juliet Stevenson (Mary Stuart)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan Lia Williams (Mary Stuart) and Juliet Stevenson (Elizabeth)
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan Lia Williams, John Light and Juliet Stevenson
 (© Manuel Harlan)
© Manuel Harlan Rudi Dharmalingam (Mortimer) and John Light (Leicester)

Time Out says

5 out of 5 stars

Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams rule the stage as Robert Icke's monarchical tour de force hits the West End

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.


Users say (4)

4 out of 5 stars

Average User Rating

4.3 / 5

Rating Breakdown

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So so good! I'm not usually a fan of lengthy historical plays but this one had my attention the whole way through. Flipping a coin to determine who plays Elizabeth and Mary was a great concept, one which no doubt keeps the actors on their toes, and I presume rehearsing and performing two alternate parts is no mean feat. Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams give powerhouse performances as they strut, slide and writhe about the stage. The movement direction was excellent and there was a lot of powerful imagery of the two sides of the coin. 


The flip of a coin decides which performance of this play you see - who plays Mary and who plays Elizabeth I. It’s an excellent concept, and smart, too - I certainly want to return and see the play again with the roles reversed, but as there is no guarantee that you’ll get the different performance it is a risk.

I loved this play, though a little long in parts (some scenes could have been removed as they didn’t add much to plot) the themes seem very relevant to today’s current climate. For feminists, you’ll see the stark difference between the lives of Mary and Elizabeth - Mary is surrounded by women who want to build her up and celebrate her power, while Elizabeth is only surrounded by men who are looking to control her and use their masculinity to manipulate her to their advantage. It is intriguing to watch and observe.

The themes are strongly about female empathy, compassion and equality. There is a lot of reference to female jealousy, too, and the influence men and love have over the way women tear each other down when a man comes between them.

The costumes until the last scene are plain and neutral, but at the very end Elizabeth's face is painted and given the complete wig and dress of the queen that she is known for. Meanwhile, Mary is dressed down, showing the power imbalance between the two women which is very clever imagery.


The performances in this play are undoubtedly strong and both female leads are brilliant.  The acting can be a bit hammy at times though.  The idea of tossing a coin to determine who will play who is a great concept too.  The time does fly by, which is some feat for a 3hr plus play and the story is engaging, especially if you're a fan of that period of history to start with.  I did find the music a little off-putting at times - it just wasn't well-chosen or well-placed in my opinion.

Saw this early in the run - Lia Williams called the toss 'Heads' - she won and played QE1.

This is a very fine production. The text is clear, the direction urgent and so the three and a quarter hours rushes by. All the supporting players are excellent, and Juliet Stevenson is her usual high standard. 
However, Lia Williams gives a monumental performance, just extraordinary. I'd go so far as to say that this is one of the most impressive feats of acting I've seen in the last few years.