Corrupt politicians, anti-Establishment conspiracies and internal terrorist threats – no, not the latest David Hare at the National, but a brilliant new Mike Poulton translation of a 200-year-old history play.
Friedrich Schiller’s take on the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, is beautifully crafted as a poetic classic in this new version by Poulton, and is ravishingly rendered at Theatr Clwyd by resident artistic director Terry Hands.
With designer Max Jones, Hands presents a vast, open stage, skewed slightly and jutting powerfully out into the auditorium. In the first half the floor is virginal white, reinforcing the supposed innocence and naivete of England’s Queen Elizabeth; for the second, it becomes oppressively black as Elizabeth’s disingenuous scheming to bring about Mary’s death without attaching blame to herself draws the tragedy to its relentless climax.
The look and conceit of the production are faultless. But without its players they would be mere show.
Among a superb supporting cast, Vivienne Moore is a touching Hannah, companion and sometime nursemaid to Mary, and Owen Teale puts in a masterly performance of statesmanship and stature as Elizabeth’s chief adviser Lord Burghley.
But at the heart of this political drama is a personal vendetta between two queens – cousins who have never met leading nations at loggerheads – which ultimately amounts to a contest of pettiness over who’s the prettier. To carry off this multi-faceted, complex conflict takes actresses of depth, power and supreme technical control.
Marina Hands as Mary weaves a character of authority and vulnerability, whose railing against the injustices done to her is calmed with real credibility as she wins the moral battle, even as she loses her head.
But the towering performance of the night comes from Claire Price as Elizabeth, whose every moment on stage is as gripping, thrilling and mesmerising as the Virgin Queen’s presence must have demanded. Delivering Poulton’s magisterial language against Hands’s spare but stunning backdrop, Price marks herself out as one of the finest actresses of her generation.
Only Schiller can explain why the play is named after the other queen.