Review: Mary Stuart (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Feb 5 – Mar 2, 2019
Playwright: Kate Mulvany (after Friedrich Schiller)
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Fayssal Bazzi, Caroline Brazier, Simon Burke, Peter Carroll, Tony Cogin, Andrew McFarlane, Rahel Romahn, Helen Thomson, Matthew Whittet, Darcey Wilson
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Queen Elizabeth I of England must finally decide whether to sign the death warrant of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, after 19 years’ imprisonment. In Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 play Mary Stuart, we look at the final days of this historical feud, paying attention to political machinations, as well as the fascinating psychological processes that the two women would have had to go through, in what is clearly the most difficult and traumatising of human experiences. A highly intelligent work, Mulvany transposes the ancient story into a contemporary tale foregrounding themes that matter today, with renewed focus on the feminist implications of this conflict between powerful women.

Surprisingly funny, featuring witty dialogue that transcends the ages to connect with our everyday ears, Mulvany transforms the royals into flesh and blood individuals that we can easily relate to. With none of the pretension often associated with period pieces about European queens and kings, we are free to examine all the sublimated dynamics between Elizabeth and Mary, to come to our own conclusions about power structures, whether or not one chooses to share the playwright’s feminist lens. Mary Stuart is also effective in delivering drama, powerful in the way it conveys the palpable emotions of a woman compelled to put a loved one to death, and another who faces her own demise.

The vast auditorium is put to good use by Elizabeth Gadsby who situates the action in a suitably grand setting, palatial but austere. Lights by Paul Jackson are especially effective in the graver sections, to facilitate the sensation of mounting pressure as we move toward the inevitable. Music and sound can sometimes be too subdued, especially in the earlier more comedic scenes, but when things turn serious, Max Lyandvert is certainly on hand to heap on the tension. Costumes are a highlight, perhaps predictably, with Elizabeth’s opulent gowns really making an impact. Mel Page’s work on all the women’s looks are unequivocally remarkable.

Director Lee Lewis exercises a stylistic restraint over her stately presentation, determined not to let pomp and ceremony distract from its central concerns. Visuals can sometimes feel sparse and incommensurate with our imagination of both the queens’ worlds, but Lewis’ strength in elucidating rationale behind all manner of human behaviour, is sublime. Actor Helen Thomson is electrifying as Elizabeth, appropriately majestic and piercingly humorous, insisting that entertainment value accompanies all the intellectual stimulation that the play so doggedly provides. Thomson continually reveals layers to the queen throughout the two-hour duration, consistently unpredictable with her depictions, including moments of poignancy that are quite unexpected. Her rendering of Elizabeth as a real and authentic person, is an astounding achievement. Mary is played by Caroline Brazier, whose very deliberate portrayal of grace under pressure is as beguiling as it is intriguing. Her penultimate scene of exposure is truly arresting, as she performs an outpouring of intense and contradictory emotions that gives us a glimpse of the woman under the crown.

Women compete because our power is scarce. We are pit against one another, and we participate in these battles, rarely challenging these absurdly unjust systems and the beliefs that they perpetuate. American Professor Emerita of Sociology and Women’s Studies, Gail Dines suggests that empowerment is a false hope, for to place ourselves within patriarchal hierarchies necessitates the exploitation of many women. Liberation on the other hand, evokes a collectivism that prohibits oppression of any kind. The two queens in Mary Stuart were able to wield power of all kinds, but it is clear that their lives were never their own. Enslaved by their fathers, their states and their religions, we watch them at war, inside a living hell not of their own making, and wonder how much of our own lives are just the same.

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