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It only takes a few moments for Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams to find out who will play the ruling Queen Elizabeth I and who her incarcerated rival Mary Stuart. At the start of every performance, the flip of a coin takes matters out of their hands. But for the English monarch, a Protestant, the decision regarding what to do with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots was a far more complicated and drawn out affair. Mary spent 19 years locked away.

Director Robert Icke’s modern dress production of the German playwright Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 drama initially clothes them both in white shirts and black velvet trouser suits – the “loser” then sheds her jacket and shoes whilst the grey-suited courtiers bow to Elizabeth, her face now lightly made up.

Designer Hildegard Bechtler has recreated the curved bare brick walls of the Almeida, the theatre which initially housed Icke’s adaptation last year. Stark, confining, they suggest both women are imprisoned in different ways. The final tableau, which sees Elizabeth white-faced, red-wigged and constrained within a voluminous farthingale as Mary, divested of all trappings, goes to her death, renders both their fates unenviable. 

Among the men who surround the monarch, Elliot Levey makes a slippery Burleigh, intent on hastening Mary’s demise, whilst John Light’s shifty Leicester is as duplicitous in his affections as in his political machinations.

On the night I went, Williams made a volatile Elizabeth, reluctant to take the blame for the execution of the death warrant she signed, whilst Stevenson proved an emotional Mary. But both are very fine actresses as amply demonstrated in the (invented) meeting between the two of them, and it would have been interesting to see the roles reversed, too. Tossing a coin certainly adds to the initial tension, but even the biggest fan is likely to baulk at the prospect of forking out a second time just on the off chance.

Duke of York’s, St Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4BG

Tube: Charing Cross / Leicester

Until 31st March 2018

£ 10.00 – £65.00 + Premium Seats

marystuartplay.co.uk


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Theatre Review: Mary Stuart
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