Harriet Walter as Elizabeth and Janet McTeer as Mary in Mary Stuart in the Donmar Warehouse production in London.
Photo by Alastair Muir
BOTTOM LINE:It starts out slow so hit the espresso bar before the show, just in case...you do not want to miss out on the second act which is well worth the wait.
Politics, lies, murder, conspiracy, imprisonment, and a battle for power among two of the most cutthroat leaders in history...and did I mention that they are women? One of the most interesting rivalries in history (between Queen Mary of Scotland and Queen Elizabeth I) is told in Friedrich Schiller’s historical drama, Mary Stuart, translated by Peter Oswald. It explores the struggle not only of women in power but women with power. Tony award winner Janet McTeer (Mary) and three-time-winner of Britain’s acclaimed Olivier Award Harriet Walter (Elizabeth) take on, perhaps, two of the strongest women depicted in history with full force. This Broadway revival, ripped fresh from London's West End, is full of bold direction, severe design elements, and fantastic acting. It is as tenacious as the women it portrays. That is, however, if you can make it through the first act.
While Act Two may be tenacious, Act One is rather tedious. Full of rambling monologues of no real interest, no real action, and not even monologues that can rest on the excuse of exposition, the first act lags. With the exception of one scene between Mary and Mortimer (Chandler Williams), in which Mortimer explains to Mary that he is her ally, not her enemy, and she reveals the Earl of Leicester (John Benjamin Hickey) as a friend and confidant, the first act is not terribly dynamic. Since I do not read German, I can only presume that Oswald gave justice to Schiller’s early nineteenth century work. So, I can only fault a dated sense of theatrical interest and style or maybe a cultural difference. The second act however, has such a modern sense of flow while maintaining the integrity of a period piece, that I wonder whether the discrepancy in style is Schiller’s handiwork or Oswald’s adaptation. But even in the able hands of McTeer and Walter, the first act falls flat. I must admit, my head bobbed a couple of times. At first, I was red with embarrassment until I noticed the orchestra of dipping heads in the dark all around me.
That being said, Act Two starts with a bang–or should I say a downpour. From the moment the torrential rain drenched the stage, with crashes of thunder, and flashes of lightning the theatre was alive. No more bobbing heads. The second act was so much more exciting it was as if it were different play. Director Phyllida Lloyd captures an absolutely gorgeous and eerie stage picture at a particular moment when Elizabeth and Mary lay eyes on each other for the first time. It happens in an instant but is an image that this reviewer will not soon forget. I find it so interesting that a single moment in a play can capture the entire collaborative process of theatre so expertly. Hours upon hours of lighting design (Hugh Vanstone), sound design (Paul Arditti), scenic and costume design (Anthony Ward), obvious manual labor behind these designs, precise direction, and fantastic acting expertly pulled together with the energy from the audience to create a flash that will live and die every night that it is performed. Moments like this is why one craves live theatre. This is where Lloyd shines as a director. There are several equally captivating stage pictures laced throughout the play, for example when Mary’s image hovers in Elizabeth’s conscience. Lloyd creates visually stunning scenes that can only be captured live.
Of course, it helps to have two equally stunning actresses leading the way. Other standouts in this stellar cast include the aforementioned Hickey as the dubious Leicester and Williams as the impassioned Mortimer. Especially entertaining is Robert Stanton as Sir William Davison. With utmost sincerity, he brings humor to a weighty moment and the tennis match of words between him and Walter is delightful. Walter and McTeer rule the stage like true royalty and the two share an explosive chemistry. McTeer is earthy and brutally honest in her portrayal of the wronged Queen. In contrast, Walter is regal, secretive, and delicate in her strength. If McTeer’s Mary is coal, Walter’s Elizabeth is a cut diamond. Born from the same elements, both are tough, beautiful, and create fire -- and never, ever, play with fire.
(Mary Stuart is currently in previews and officially opens on April 19th. It plays at the Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street. Performances are Tuesday at 7pm, Thursday & Friday at 8pm, Wednesday & Saturday at 2pm & 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. The show runs 2 hrs. 45 min. with one 15 min. intermission. Tickets are $64.00–$116.50. Student Rush: $29.50, available at the box office on the day of the performancee, limit 2 per valid ID. For tickets go to theatermania.com. Discount tickets are $40–$45, available until May 3 at broadwaybox.com.)