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What the Butler Saw

Mary Stuart

By • West End
WOS Rating:
For anyone afraid of the continuing dumbing down of the West End, there are, at least, a few welcome signs of intelligent life left: having begun the year with the transfer of the Sheffield Crucible production of Schiller's Don Carlos to the Gielgud, there's now a second Schiller on Shaftesbury Avenue this year with the deserved transfer of the Donmar Warehouse's summer revival of Mary Stuart to the Apollo.

And even if a little of the close-up intensity that the Donmar can uniquely provide is lost, the production now has a head-on, full-on drive that the Donmar can also threaten to dissipate by its three-sided configuration. Now, the entire audience is focused in the same direction; and the stage is laid clear, with a stark simplicity in Anthony Ward's pared-back design, to simply drive this drama relentlessly forward. (This also includes the now usual homage to the Donmar's own physical space, with the meticulous recreation of the theatre's own back wall that is also currently being referenced in Michael Grandage's Donmar-in-the-West-End staging of Guys and Dolls).

While this still remains very much the Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter show - and how amazing it is to watch these two queens of the stage as well as their kingdoms battling for pride and supremacy over each other - the company has solidified around them with superb performances all around, with newcomers like June Watson (replacing Barbara Jefford as Mary's nurse and loyal confidant), Michael Simkins (substituting for James Fleet as Mary's Guardian, Sir Amias Paulet) and Paul Jesson (taking over from David Burke as the Earl of Shrewsbury), integrating seamlessly with them.

It remains unmissable.

- Mark Shenton


Note: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from July 2005 and this production's earlier run at the Donmar Warehouse.

It is fast turning into Friedrich Schiller's year. The critical and box office triumph of the 18th-century German playwright's Don Carlos, in a production directed by Donmar Warehouse artistic director Michael Grandage that transferred from Sheffield's Crucible (which he was also running at the time) to the West End's Gielgud Theatre, set the bar high already.

Now Grandage's Donmar raises the stakes higher still, with a production of revelatory intensity and stunning theatrical power of Schiller's Mary Stuart. Directed by Phyllida Lloyd with a hurtling sense of politics and passion, it forensically observes how the power balances are constantly being shifted between a pair of opposing Queens and their respective courtiers and followers.

While Don Carlos offered a blistering opportunity for actors - including Richard Coyle in the title role and Derek Jacobi as the estranged father with which he effected a castastrophic reunion - to shine, now it’s the ladies’ turn. Three of our very finest stage actresses lead this play's bleak journey of dark court conspiracies, betrayals, deceptions and failed reconciliations with a ferocious dynamism and searching intelligence.

The Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots - having allowed, she admits, her husband to be lured to his death - flees to England, where she’s taken prisoner and now stands accused of conspiracy to plot the overthrow of Elizabeth, the protestant Queen of England. "I came here demanding the sacred right of asylum, threw myself into the arms of my royal cousin, but instead of protection was given prison", Mary tells the Lord High Treasurer when he comes to deliver the judgement made against her, by 40 votes to two, that she stands in breach of a new law framed specifically to condemn her.

You can't help but think of the contemporary resonances of the world of modern asylum seekers, who have brought their own religious convictions with them here but even now are being accused of fomenting dissent and threatening national security so that new laws are being drafted to invoke against them.

But though Peter Oswald's fierce and passionate new version of the play - part poetry, part prose - might suggest such comparisons, it is at its heart the story of the ever-shifting politics of power between two women born to high office, wrestling with their private demons against a need to keep public face. In fact, Mary and Elizabeth never met in real life; but Schiller stage-manages a brilliant third act confrontation that’s utterly combustible.

It is epic stuff, Shakespearean in its twisting conspiracies and Greek in its tragic inevitability, but entirely its own as a drama of personal as well as state politics. Here, the two opposing royals - Janet McTeer (pictured) as the imprisoned, impassioned Mary (with a certainty that right, religion and inheritance are on her side) and Harriet Walter as Elizabeth, clinging desperately to power but full of insecurity - are laid out with an electrifying, minutely calibrated tension. They are, respectively, startling and mesmerising to watch.

But so is the third woman of the company, the always-astonishing Barbara Jefford as Mary's nurse and confidante, Kennedy, bringing a human tenderness and stoicism to her beloved's fate that’s heartbreaking. Amongst the superb ensemble of men variously taking sides as advisers and adversaries, there are particularly resonant performances from Rory Kinnear as Mortimer, an invented character who plots for Mary's escape; Guy Henry who conspires (literally) to be on both sides; and David Horovitch and Rufus Wright as officers of state with their own uncomfortable duties to discharge.

- Mark Shenton


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