Mary Stuart

Robert Icke’s production of Schiller’s Mary Stuart is great theatre. It starts with Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams tossing a coin - a sovereign fittingly - to decide who plays the eponymous Mary and who Elizabeth. It is a theatrical device - but a fitting start as central to the drama is the question of who is the prisoner. Obviously Mary - but is Elizabeth in a jewel encrusted cell as well? The point is made, too crudely to my mind at the end, when Elizabeth who has up until then been dressed like Mary in a loose trousers and a shirt, is trussed up in hoops and make up as the ‘Virgin Queen’ with whom we are familiar - while the condemned Mary wears a white shift. 

I heard Robert Icke being interviewed about the production. It was fascinating on many levels. Something that I hadn’t considered before is the advantages of a translation. The original German, written in 1800, was six hours long. Icke’s production is three hours and translated into ‘modern’ English. He made the point that to the modern ear Shakespeare sounds archaic - but such is the worship of the bard and the fetishisation of the text - that any departure in English is impossible. Not so in translation. This gave him the freedom to work the drama to its maximum and tease out the themes and relationships that interested him. One of these is the vital importance of gender in the two queens’ relationship. It is an almost unique story in that they were both queens in their own right in what was still a masculine world and their fertility- or lack of it in Elizabeth’s case - was another unique factor. When Icke was working on the project the infamous Andrea Leadsom remark about Teresa May’s lack of children was all over the news and this peculiar dilemma of these two powerful women was given a 21st century twist.

He also gives their sexuality another interpretation. Mary was famously a woman of allure and desires - she was married three times and lastly to the murderer of Darnley, the father of her son, the future James I of England - with whom she was clearly in love. Love trumped statecraft. Elizabeth in contrast subsumed her womanhood to her duties (and survival) as queen. In the play Elizabeth is shown a woman of strong and overt sexuality with her favourite the Earl of Leicester - which makes the drama of her iron choices the more poignant.

It is a timeless play - and it goes on tour soon. See it if you can.

The link to the Robert Icke interview is: https://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/dan-snows-history-hit/id1042631089?mt=2&i=1000402317337


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