Mary Stuart

Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter fight for stage supremacy.

  • GOD SAVE THE QUEENSWalter, left, considers a plea from McTeer (Photograph: Joan...

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

  • Photograph: Joan Marcus

GOD SAVE THE QUEENSWalter, left, considers a plea from McTeer (Photograph: Joan...

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

Imagine that U.S. forces have captured Osama bin Laden on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. He is flown to American soil and held in maximum security while the Obama administration decides how to proceed. He has to die, and publicly; but when, and by what law and means of execution? Would Obama, who has shown such diplomatic savvy, schedule a face-to-face with bin Laden, allow himself to be photographed meeting the monster of September 11? Or would such an encounter be catastrophic? Such contemporary musings creep into your mind during the current, cracking-good Mary Stuart, in which Elizabeth I (Walter) must decide what to do with her imprisoned rival and cousin, Mary I (McTeer). The choice will consolidate her power or lead to civil war. Either way, England will not suffer dual queens of clashing faiths.

Okay, the bin Laden/Mary analogy is imperfect—I'm prepared for hate mail from Mary defenders and Catholics alike. But in the world of Friedrich Schiller's 1800 tragedy (and even more so in the period it depicts), these religious differences were deadly serious. Under Elizabeth, Catholics were hunted and slaughtered with a sadistic zeal that would make the Taliban blanch. Moreover, the papist heir to the Scottish throne was, during her 19-year incarceration, implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. As far as 16th-century English Protestants were concerned, Mary was a religio-fascist terrorist who wanted to turn the world Catholic.

Peter Oswald, in his half-prose, half-verse adaptation of the much lengthier Schiller original, fully exploits the contemporary resonance. He peppers his text with loaded terms such as cells of assassins, refugee and security, underscoring the news-cycle parallels. And director Phyllida Lloyd uses her costumes provocatively: Mary and Elizabeth (as well as Mary's lady-in-waiting, played by Maria Tucci) both wear period dresses, whereas the men are clad in dark suits and tote briefcases. This mixed-period approach drapes a layer of gender conflict over the action: Women are metaphorically sewed up into historical signifiers; men work the levers of power in modern fashion. Then again, in theatrical terms, the ladies look utterly fabulous.

Because let's be honest: Beyond the intellectual issues of interfaith conflict and ethics in a totalitarian state, this is a juicy historical drama about two glamorous divas going at it hammer and tongs, loving the same man and vying for supremacy. Schiller engineered a meeting between the two monarchs that never happened: The Earl of Leicester (John Benjamin Hickey)—who is romantically involved with both women—persuades Elizabeth to meet her rival at her castle prison, Fotheringhay. The showdown is the centerpiece of the play and splendidly exciting.

This pivotal scene is prefaced by a nifty directorial flourish in which Mary dances giddily in a rainstorm, kicking off her shoes and getting soaked in a most unqueenly manner. When Walter hoves into view with her courtly retinue, McTeer still has the wet-and-wild look, making her seem both pathetically debased and sexier than ever. Walter, by contrast, is forever cosseted in dark-hued regalia, her face a politic blank slate. "Nothing is safe except obscurity," Elizabeth ominously states, a motto that Dick Cheney probably wishes he'd coined.

Lloyd and her sublime leading ladies ensure that our sympathies keep ping-ponging until the very end. When I caught the original, more intimate staging at London's Donmar Warehouse in 2005, the action felt weighted toward beleaguered, pious Mary and against the coolly manipulative Elizabeth. Here, however, there's no imbalance. In one scene our hearts break for the magnificently hot-blooded McTeer; in the next Walter shows us how she too is just as trapped and desperate. Neither woman is purely a victim, but neither are they political free agents. The look of barely contained desolation on Walter's face in the final moments of the play—as Elizabeth emerges the winner—is chilling beyond words.

To avoid falling into fatuous diva-worship, I must credit the supporting cast: Brian Murray's sentimental old Earl of Shrewsbury, the ice-cold Lord Burleigh of Nicholas Woodeson and the smallish but pathos-rich turn by Robert Stanton as Sir William Davison. The latter courtier receives the signed death sentence from Elizabeth, but she refuses to order him to deliver it. In Davison's comical bewilderment, you begin to see how a woman in 1587 kept her crown: through cunning, secrecy and ambiguity. She reveals only what she wants you to see. Luckily, these grande dames of the English stage show us everything we need to know about power, loyalty and desire.

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Broadhurst Theatre. By Friedrich Schiller. New version by Peter Oswald. Dir. Phyllida Lloyd. With Janet McTeer, Harriet Walter. 2hrs 50mins. One intermission.