The throne of England is desecrated by a bastard, and the noble people of the British Isles robbed by a simple trick. If right was honoured, you would be sprawling in the dust before me, because I am your Queen.
— Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller (new version by Peter Oswald)
There is such power in the language of this deathless tale—of the final days leading up to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, by order of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I—and it's more than matched by the power of the portrayals, two towering female roles at the stark center of every action. The challenge here, of course, is to keep the tension high since the ending is never in doubt, and it's a testament to the talents of the actresses involved that you keep praying for a different outcome, for the sake of them both, even as the axe falls.
Janet McTeer's Mary Stuart is tall and proud, all fire and searing brimstone, spilling over with so much emotion that you're hardly surprised when she finally throws herself to the ground—wet and crawling after a rainstorm, prostrate with desperation—to beg for her life at Elizabeth's feet (a fiction on the part of the play's author, Friedrich Schiller; in reality the two never met). McTeer gives Mary the obvious impression of a life lived fully, though not always well; this is a warm and passionate woman who (fact or not) leads only with her heart, which ultimately (fact or not) is what causes her to lose her head.
Then there's Harriet Walter as Elizabeth, mining the icy depths and willful childishness of this virgin queen's own self-deception and vulnerability. It's a trickier role, toeing a finer and more subtle line: Elizabeth is all head, and not an easy one at that—you sense that she never draws a full breath, so aware is she of the constant balancing of expectation and duty that it seems to constrict both voice and form. Her capricious ability to switch her emotions on and off like the turning of a spigot speaks to both her mighty success as a ruler ("this female king" who reigned over England for 45 years) and her all-too-human failings. She's a skilled manipulator, but she's being manipulated at the same time, tossed back and forth in accordance with the conflicting advice of the male courtiers she only half trusts, but who know all too well how to flatter her insecure femininity and innate paranoia to their advantage.
And what of these men? Cloaked in modern-day dark suits, they hover and descend like a flock of crows, forever swooping in to whisper, persuade, cajole, accuse, manipulate, peck peck peck—in effect nudging these two queenly figures across a life-sized chessboard. Here lies the secret power behind the throne, and the unfussy matter of their bureaucratic costuming marks a symbolic separation with that of the women's heavy, floor-sweeping gowns: they may have been born to rule, as the old saw goes, but both queens are isolated and trapped, literally and figuratively, by the sheer weight of their own royal mantles, and no less so by the simple fact of their sex.
It's the second act meeting, though, in the aforementioned rainstorm, that really proves their mettle—and rewards the audience's attention—as each queen steps up to the line armed with her own imperious sense of rightness, egos blazing and tongues sharp. It's a virtuosic confrontation that tips the scale from one lady to the other and back again, and ultimately it's Mary who wins the day while Elizabeth takes the war. And the staging of it—the elegance, the spareness, the lighting, the mist, the sudden reveal of Elizabeth stepping out from under a cloud of umbrellas to face her rival for the first time, the way Mary stumbles at first and then straightens—all I can say is that all was perfection, and seldom have I been so engaged by the sheer palpable force of two extraordinary actresses at the absolute top of their game.
Talking to NPH on our way out the door was only the frosted coating on my proverbial cornflakes of joy.