Broadway: Mary Stuart

“Women are not strong.”
“Some of them are.”
“You are an exception.”

Such an exchange, between Elizabeth, Queen of England, and one of her advisors is quite typical of Mary Stuart, written by Friedrich Schiller, and here in a new version by Peter Oswald. The play is about politics, but more specifically, the politics of gender. Director Phyllida Lloyd smartly brings out the question of gender in her production, which has traveled to New York from London. This element is highlighted by the costumes, designed by Anthony Ward. The two queens in question, Elizabeth and Mary, wear period dresses, mostly black. The numerous men that surround them – their advisors, jailers, lovers, all wear dark contemporary suits. The dark costumes are matched by the stark set – simply large black brick walls, and a few pieces of wooden furniture. The simplicity of the costumes and set allows lighting designer Hugh Vanstone to work his magic and create the most dramatically striking lighting that I have seen in a very long time. (I’ll be routing for him to win the Tony.)

The costume choices serve to link Mary and Elizabeth – they are, after all, both women, queens, and cousins. And really, both are imprisoned. Mary’s prison is a literal one, but Elizabeth also is not free. She is tied by her position and by her gender, reliant on the men that surround her and the people that she rules. Just as the design elements unite the two characters, they also show how isolated they are – from others, from their surroundings, and from each other.

Mary and Elizabeth are two figures that have fascinated people throughout time. Mary was imprisoned for many years in England, before finally being executed for plotting to kill Elizabeth. To the end, Mary claimed her innocence. In real life, the two never met, but what might have happened if they had has been fodder for many imaginations. Besides Schiller, Maxwell Anderson wrote a "what if" play, Mary of Scotland. Both playwrights take make Mary their heroine, unusual since Elizabeth is such a glorified ruler. Anderson makes Elizabeth the out-and-out villain in his piece, but Schiller treats her more sympathetically.

In this production, Janet McTeer is a steady and regal Mary, exploding into righteous fury when she is pushed too far. Harriet Walter also gives a command performance as Elizabeth. She is both flirtatious and furious, and shows us her insecurity underneath. The men manage to hold their own against these consummate actresses. Nice performances are given by Chandler Williams as the passionate Mortimer and John Benjamin Hickey as Earl of Leicester, whose loyalties are never entirely clear.

4 stars


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