Theatre Review: Mary Stuart, Duke of York’s ‘Depressingly Familiar Territory’


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.

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  1. Posted by Greg, at Reply

    Mary Stuart is a very good play. Sadly this production was diminished by moments of silliness. How did Queen Elizabeth in the midst of a balletic sex scene continue to deliver a speech? How did she not think – this is silly ? How did actors running round the stage, not think – this is silly? How did Mary Stuart on the floor with her loyal follower not think – this is silly? As for Queen Elizabeth clicking her fingers! The moment silliness intrudes, the magic of theatre is gone. The play and the players deserved better than this .

  2. Posted by Victoria, at Reply

    Hi Helen. Apologies it has taken me so long to reply but I have been weighing up so much of what you said in that time, I promise! I agree it’s a subject of much debate. I’m seeing it all too frequently to be at peace with it but I do appreciate your points and 100% thank you for commenting. I don’t think this wider debate will be ending any time soon! V x

  3. Posted by Helen, at Reply

    Really interesting. I agree with you that sexual violence is overused and under-thought-out (as an “inciting incident” for a male hero to avenge, as a way of trying to break a female character etc). The defence of realism is also overused; as Sophia McDougall pointed out once, until Skyfall there was never a whisper of a suggestion that James Bond feared being raped in any of the prisons/camps/torture scenarios in which he found himself – despite the fact that prison rape is endemic in the US, and if you read something like Bravo Two Zero, being raped in captivity is a real enough threat to inspire endless morbid jokes.

    That said, I don’t want a world in which artists don’t feel they can engage with sexual violence (or maybe just male artists?) because it’s too controversial. It’s a huge force shaping the relationship between the sexes, and a foundation of women’s oppression. To me, Mary Stuart explores a fundamental feminist assertion – that rape is about power as much as it is about sex.

    I think it’s notable that there is no one in the play who views sex as a fun leisure activity between equals. To everyone, it’s power – and domination. Mary had her husband killed because her sexual desire was so strong it over-ruled her conscience – it dominated her; her way of conceptualising her feelings for Leicester is to feel that he “conquered” her.

    Elizabeth, meanwhile, both derives her power from withholding sex – from a husband who might impregnate her – and enjoys using her power to behave sexually with her courtiers. (That secretary has a clear sexual harassment case against his boss, after all, and the power differential is dramatised by the way she kisses him but he knows he can’t put his hands on her in return.)

    What I see in much of the sexual violence in Mary Stuart is an exploration of how a male-dominated society reckons with a female monarch. There’s a desire to reduce Elizabeth to “just” a woman, by Leicester; her refusal to treat him as an equal turns his sexual desire for her into something darker and more twisted. Here at least is an arena where he is stronger, where he could take control. It’s notable that his fantasy of seeing Elizabeth “dominate” Mary feels more like projection than a reflection of what she wants. It made me think of all the endless commentary on Hillary Clinton being “cold” – which is a rhetorical millimetre away from “frigid”. A woman who refuses to share her power, share her body, drives a certain type of insecure man mad.

    Sorry, that was longer than I intended! I just feel like it’s important to make the case for tackling uncomfortable subjects in drama, as long as it’s thoughtfully done. Here, I feel like it is – particularly as some of the “sexy” language from the Mortimer/Mary scene has come out since the Almeida run. That’s a good decision because the last thing that scene should feel is titillating.

    Thanks again for writing something so thought provoking.