There but for the grace of God… What role chance and luck play in our fates. It seems all we have and all we are can be decided at the toss of a coin. And that is the literal truth in this production that, famously, allocates the two principal roles – Mary, Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I – at the start of each performance on the basis of a coin toss.
The coin is spun, the role of ruler and prisoner is allocated. And the Court bows in unison to the appointed Queen, the other is dragged off to prison.
Probably the most impressive opening to a play I’ve ever witnessed. More than a gimmick, though, this is an exquisite demonstration of the fates of the two women. Either could have been Queen; either should have been Queen. The Royal line had been broken, tumultuous events had cleaved the country in half. All that stood between either and the executioner’s block was a metaphorical coin toss. And Mary lost the toss.
We see Elizabeth’s path to the throne as almost inevitable now but, in truth, it was far from it. She was cut out of the Royal line after her father had her mother executed, and it was only her sister Mary’s inability to produce an heir that saw Protestant Elizabeth pulled back into favour. But it was a very precarious favour, one that Catholic Mary saw as an opportunity to take what she saw as rightfully hers.
Only it didn’t work out that way. On landing in England she was arrested, tried for treason and found guilty. When the play starts we find Mary (Juliet Stevenson on the night that I went) imprisoned, waiting for Elizabeth (Lia Williams) to sign her death warrant. Only there are delays, Elizabeth is having second thoughts. Mary sees her chance – can she persuade her cousin to show mercy? Or, rather, maybe there is still an opportunity to grab the crown for herself?
What an extraordinary examination of power versus authority this play gives us. Mary may not have her freedom but she is the essence of authority – wise, driven, and sure of her own mind. She commands a loyal group of women around her, and she commands much loyalty from abroad and within England’s borders. She is a woman who knows what she wants, and she is smart enough to know how to get it. However, what she does not have is power. She is no longer in control of her own fate.
Elizabeth (Lia Williams) in contrast has power but zero authority. She presides over a fractured court – one full of spies and betrayers. Add to this, she is unsure of herself, bullied and pushed around (literally at some points) by her courtiers who are vying for influence. She is capricious and insecure. She is swayed by lovers and friends, and naïve to those who are manipulating her. She has the power that comes with her throne, but she has no idea how to wield it.
What this adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s play covers, therefore, is the simultaneous rise and fall of two Queens – Mary will lose it all, and Elizabeth will find her voice, find her strength, and take the crown with two hands. But she will pay a price for it. The question we are left with at the end is, which one is free, and which is now the prisoner?
This is a dynamic production – its energy and its pace raise the pulse levels even for those of us just sitting in our seats. The sense of panic and fever that grips the Royal Court, fearful of the teeming number of plots and assassination attempts on Elizabeth, is palpable. Again and again, the courtiers berate and bully Elizabeth – she must order the execution of her cousin/she must not under any circumstances order Mary’s execution/the Pope has excommunicated her, leaving more attempts on her life an inevitability/she must leave Mary imprisoned, not dead/the trial against Mary was illegal/the trial against Mary was proper… So many swirling, conflicting arguments; no wonder Elizabeth is shaken and confused.
The compare and contrast between the two women is superb as well, from the physical traits – similar hair and wardrobe – to their respective transformations at the finale. And that fragility of fate that haunts this production, that at any point any of the decisions and actions could have gone in the other direction, that nothing here was inevitable, is so affecting. The impact of terrible circumstances and spontaneous decisions… Amazing.
There is so much to love in this show, but I cannot deny that I had concerns. Big concerns.
The level of sexualisation, sexual violence, and assault in the depiction of these two powerful women concerned me immensely. Director Robert Icke has Elizabeth groping and assaulting every man that comes into her presence, and then has her slapped around the face by her lover, Leicester (John Light). Mary fares little better, with an attempted rape on her from Mortimer (Rudi Dharmalingam), a supposed accomplice. And, repeatedly, these women – the most powerful women in their worlds in their time – are repeatedly crawling on their hands and knees, grasping and ruined.
I appreciate that there is a need for an arc in all plays, but it is seriously problematic if we are repeatedly using these dangerous and depressingly familiar tropes to belittle powerful women. I could find no reason for this depiction. Ii is concerning that (male) creatives, time and again, resort to sexual violence as a way of expressing the challenges to women who seek to rule in a man’s world. That others seem to still not be able to see how concerning this is worries me.
Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson are both extraordinary; of course they are. That they take to the stage each evening, with two characters fully formed in their heads and hearts but unsure which they will be required to draw on, is a hell of challenge. That they can produce performances of this quality under these conditions is amazing. Two queens playing two queens. All four queens, though, deserved better treatment than elements of this production gave them. Much like their respective fates, it didn’t need to go quite like this.
Duke of York’s Theatre, London, to March 31, 2018.
Tickets from £10.
All production images by Manuel Harlan.