The production of “Mary Stuart,” now playing in the Rollins Theater at the Long Center, offers a passionate and beautifully acted Shakespearean style drama which explores the murderous relationship between Queen Elizabeth I of England and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots.
A close reading of history around Mary and Elizabeth will reveal a killing madness afoot in royal circles. Friedrich Schiller’s play distills the history by keeping his focus on decisions circling around the issue of succession while the Queens seek or reject their courtier’s guidance on the matter of maintaining a strategic distance from one another or just saying, “off with her head!”
Both women were in the direct line of succession. Elizabeth’s father was King Henry the Eighth but Mary was a direct descendant of King Henry the Seventh – should Elizabeth die Mary had a rightful claim on the throne of England. Death lay at the center of any decision that could be made [excluding the kiss and make up choice] – and in Elizabethan England suicide, murder or execution often carried the day.
Mary Queen of Scots inherited the Scottish throne at birth when her father died six days after she was born: 1542. She was betrothed to the English Crown Prince as a child, but the English kid died young; at 16, she married the future king of France but was widowed by her eighteenth birthday. In Scotland she married again but intrigues, murders and a growing Protestant rebellion unseated her as the Catholic Queen. Nevertheless, Mary had been recognized as a Queen her entire life and must have felt herself to be so. Fleeing to her Cousin Queen Elizabeth, either for protection or to raise a rebellion and take over the English throne, got her placed into protective custody for 20 years.
Elizabeth did not grow up with the certainty of her royal status. Her father, Henry the Eighth, famously fought the Catholic Pope for the right to divorce his wife and ultimately took six wives. Some he divorced and some he murdered by execution. Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother, was put to death when Princess Elizabeth was not yet three-years-old. The motherless toddler was then declared to be an illegitimate child.
Elizabeth and Mary learned very different life lessons.
Elizabeth herself had been put in the Tower after her father died and the succession to crown became muddled. But fortune turned in her direction and after being crowned Queen of England, she held onto the power at her command with a great force of will.
Of course history tells us that in the end, Queen Elizabeth, caused her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, to be executed. And it is the inherent drama within that choice, within that decision, which drives the play and its several conflicts: male vs. female; church vs. state; public duty vs. personal wishes.
Friedrich Schiller’s play makes use of Shakespearean conventions – in other words – he used the conventions of the Elizabethan Era to craft his play about Queen Elizabeth I. Its drama is conveyed through language and speech; its meaning derives from the actor’s verbal and emotional exchanges rather than from action. Although the bit of action that is undertaken on stage is done exceptionally well. Thankfully the translation adopts contemporary English making it easier for general audiences; although at times the word choices are a bit too modern to be convincing as Elizabethan usage. French speakers are likely to be distracted by the actors playing Frenchmen who have mastered French accented English but not the intonation or cadence of the French language – at any rate it is a mind twisting acting job.
The costuming is extremely interesting – the female actors wear simple abstractions of Elizabethan style dresses – the males wear modern business suits. One hopes the theater company will spring for dry cleaning before the next performance however. The darkened theater, the abstract sets and the stage lighting all conspire to draw the eye to every wrinkle in every suit on every man. While an argument can be made that the costuming supports the male/female stream of conflict within the play, I suspect that budgetary constraints are also at work. Since the theater is small, you can choose to sit toward the back and perhaps avoid my personal dilemma of attention. While headphones are offered for those with hearing limitations, I did not find them at all necessary.
Exceptionally strong performances carry the play – Pamela Christian as Queen Elizabeth was more than convincing – her body language conveyed a regal air and conveyed the Queen’s internal doubts about the wisdom of executing her cousin, an option placed over against the external pressures of her role as head of state. Her conflicted anguish reminded me of a sentiment expressed by President John F. Kennedy regarding crisis management. “…I could not realize – nor could any man realize who does not bear the burdens of this office – how heavy and constant would be those burdens.” Mr. Christian’s stage work expresses both the internal and external burdens that pressed down on Queen Elizabeth.
Helen Merino, playing Mary, gave an equally strong performance and she, too, captured the royal persona with skill. Her task was great. She had to make Mary sympathetic, vulnerable even, but also headstrong to the point of committing herself to death by not being able to control her outburst at the Queen. In point of fact, the two Queens never did meet. But the dramatized meeting stands in very well for the fact that the historic Mary did confront her cousin militarily with the intent to sit upon the throne of England and restore the Catholic Church. Ms. Merino made me feel Mary’s tension and so transported me to feel, all the more, Mary’s release when she at last blasted her disclosure of inner truth at Queen Elizabeth.
The male members of the cast performed admirably – especially when the roles called for those services remarkable to their sex – they did not fail as romantics, as fighters, as men who would go to battle for a queen. I was most impressed by Dirk Van Allen as the Earl of Shrewsbury – his character, not a main role, remained natural, truthful and believable throughout providing a perfect foil for the Elizabeth character. Sean Martin, in the role of Sir Edward Mortimer, performed his tasks with grace – his inner conflict worked well but his portrayal of violence moved on a fine line necessary within the small space. With the audience merely feet away, his action did not overwhelm – well done. Scott Daigle, as Earl of Leicester, suggested sinister nature at work in a man who trespassed readily between the two Queens only to see himself undone with Mary’s execution – he showed us a man as emotionally lost as the women he would have seduced.
— by A-Team Member, Emily Carter