Prior to Christmas, I made my last trip of the year to the Almeida Theatre to see its new production Mary Stuart. The show imagines what could have happened if, prior to Mary’s execution in 1587, Queen Elizabeth I had met with her during her imprisonment. Making the experience a little different for the audience, actresses Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson alternate roles and the decision of who plays who is determined on the spin of a coin at the start of each show.
There was only one way to guarantee seeing both versions of the show, which was to see both performances on a two-show day. On those days, the matinee roles are determined on the coin spin, with the evening being the opposite. As soon as the show was announced I wanted to see both interpretations, but I admit I was a little concerned that perhaps seeing the same three hour play twice in one day may be a challenge!
I needn’t have worried as Friedrich Schiller’s play was not only a pleasure to watch on both occasions, but in fact made it in to my top ten productions of 2016 (you can read the rest here). Robert Icke is such a creative force and he brings his own distinct style to the direction of the production, which feels incredibly relevant in today’s turbulent political times. There is an excitement in the theatre as the show begins and the coin spins. Depending on how it falls, one woman shall be imprisoned while the other has the cast kneel before her.
The fact the actresses are dressed in similar clothes, with similar haircuts, all emphasises what these two British queens had in common and as Mary points out, who else can judge her but her sister and fellow queen, Elizabeth. One was destined for greatness and one was destined to die, but watching this play really brought home to me how really it could just as easily have been a role reversal. Like the spinning coin, history could have fallen a different way.
Both actresses are superb, which knowing their stage work is no surprise. Having seen both, I felt each actress had a role for which they were better suited. In my view, Williams is a more convincing Mary, as she brings a vibrancy of spirit to the role that Stevenson doesn’t. She may appear smaller when face to face with Stevenson’s assured Elizabeth, but when she does unleash her fury it’s as powerful as her piercingly raw scream in Oresteia!
Stevenson however did effectively convey Mary as a woman born a raised to be a Queen, as she exudes a status that fit for someone who has grown up in that world. Williams was also a superb Elizabeth; much more sexual in the role, as she strutted confidently around the stage and had a much more physical relationship with John Light’s Leicester. It was fun to see her Elizabeth light up a cigarette and create a very different, but as equally fascinating woman as Stevenson.
There are also some strong supporting performances, particularly John Light, as Leicester dances between allegiances in order to protect his own position. Rudi Dharmalingam was also very good as Mortimer, whose loyalty to Mary is ultimately revealed by Leicester, as is Vincent Franklin as Burleigh. Being a Robert Icke production (again he adapts the play and directs it), it creates its own special atmosphere in the Almeida; there’s a buzz, as these people from centuries ago are put before us in a very contemporary style. This, as was the case with Oresteia, creates a world that feels current and fresh and as a result, thrilling. His direction of his two leads is also brilliant; the mirroring of their images, particularly in the scene were Elizabeth finally succumbs to her fears and signs the death warrant, as Mary looks on from her mind’s eye, works so well and adds to the tension on the stage.
The Almeida lends itself to these historical pieces so well. Its bare brick walls and stark setting help immerse you in this world in a way not many spaces can and combined with Paul Arditti’s sound design, plus a new song from there is a pulse to the production that makes its 3 hour running time fly by.
This is another superb Almeida / Icke production, which I cannot recommend highly enough. It also serves to make me even more excited about what Icke will create in this theatre for Hamlet next month!
Mary Stuart continues its run at the Almeida Theatre until 28th January. Check the Almeida’s website Almeida Theatre for more information and the limited seats that pop up there. The Theatre is also selling day seats every morning at 11 a.m. (get there early) as well as returns before each show (I recommend getting there at least 3 hours before the start for a good chance of getting one). Or you can call the box office on 020 7359 4404. Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes (including a 20 minute interval).