Theatre review - Mary Stuart, The Lowry Theatre, Salford Quays

Lia Williams, John Light and Juliet Stevenson and the cast of Mary Stuart.
Photo by Manuel Harlan

Lia Williams, John Light and Juliet Stevenson and the cast of Mary Stuart. Photo by Manuel Harlan - Credit: Archant

Intense, engaging and intellectually satisfying. Mary Stuart is quite superb, says Kate Houghton.

Lia Williams (Mary Stuart) and Juliet Stevenson (Elizabeth) in Mary Stuart .
Photo by Manuel Harlan

Lia Williams (Mary Stuart) and Juliet Stevenson (Elizabeth) in Mary Stuart . Photo by Manuel Harlan. - Credit: Archant

Mary Stuart, the account of the final trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots as told by playwright Freidrich Schiller, is a blending of fact and fiction that serves to bring us far closer to the reality of what took place than a history book ever could.

The play opens with its two leads, the marvellous Juliet Stephenson and Lia Williams, flipping a coin to decide who shall play which role, the condemned Scottish Queen or the ruling English monarch. This is only the first of many clever devices that build a recognition of the many, many similarities in these women’s journeys to their respective thrones and the shaky foundations upon which their lives rested.

Lia Williams (Elizabeth) in Mary Stuart
Photo: Manuel Harlan

Lia Williams (Elizabeth) in Mary Stuart Photo: Manuel Harlan - Credit: Archant

The play was first performed in 1800, in Germany, but this version, an adaption by Robert Icke, couldn’t feel more contemporary. In its staging – a bare, circular rotating wooden platform – and dress - smart suits for all our leading characters, male and female - and in the one-liners and moments of very modern humour, it’s a play set wholly in the now.

Last night’s performance saw Juliet Stephenson take the role of Elizabeth while Lia Williams played the part of Mary Stuart. Both women are grand theatre talents, filling the space with voice and movement, drawing the audience closer during times of pensive quiet and throwing us back in our seat with sudden explosions of fury – indications both of their power (won or lost) and their fear.

Lia Williams (Elizabeth) and Juliet Stevenson (Mary Stuart)
Photo by Manuel Harlan

Lia Williams (Elizabeth) and Juliet Stevenson (Mary Stuart) Photo by Manuel Harlan - Credit: Archant

Both women are filled with fear. Both are in constant danger of losing their life – one to the royal executioner, the other to assassins determined to rid the country of a Protestant Queen. Of course, the presence of Mary in England has served to increase the precariousness of Elizabeth’s position, but what can she do – can she really execute a Queen? It’s a PR nightmare, that much become clear as Elizabeth’s Council splits apart, arguing for both death and for mercy. There are many grand scenes where Elizabeth’s dilemma is writ large: her guilt plain to see, her fear more so, yet her desire to do the right thing by Mary, a Queen, is powerful.

Despite being Queens, and therefore set above everybody else in their country, both women are surrounded by men, each with their own agenda and most with two very different faces. They bow and scrape, yet they shout and patronise too. It’s no surprise both women lose control more than once. It’s cleverly done – supreme power, yet none at all.

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Elizabeth declares, with a telling balance of disdain and envy, that Mary has led her life for herself, based on her heart’s governance, while she herself has chosen the path of country before all, prepared to “sacrifice my virgin freedom” to provide steady governance and, by the country’s demand, an heir. Yet both are caught, bound and tied to demands and expectations not of their choosing. Mary’s attempt to break free, her marriage to Bothwell, is precisely what led to her current predicament, charged with the murder of her husband, Darnley. Elizabeth is more tightly bound, her grip on freedom comes through her refusal to marry, to avoid the inevitable subjugation to a man that would mean. As she says early on in the play, as she is harangued to make a marital alliance with France: “the ring denotes marriage, yet ‘tis of rings a chain is formed.”

The closing scene, where Mary is led in a simple white shift, to her death, while Elizabeth is dressed in layer upon layer of robes, jewels and wig, is incredibly poignant. Mary is at last at peace, free from worldly cares, and walks to her death with serenity. Elizabeth, on the other hand, is wracked with guilt, weighed down with the pressures of her position and appears here in almost puppet form, barely recognisable as a real woman.

At three hours it’s a long, long play and there are several moments when I did wonder if we needed quite so much talk, much of which serves only to hammer the point home. Especially as, let’s face it, we know what’s going to happen in the end. It is, however, still a masterpiece production led by two grand talents and in this respect, definitely one to watch.

Mary Stuart plays at The Lowry until Saturday 21 April