With Power Comes Fear
"Mary Stuart takes a big subject and roots it firmly in powerful characters and fine acting. It is a melodrama in the best sense, that touches deep wells of passion. The production was delayed twice by the pandemic but has been well worth the wait." Nick Le Mesurier, Leamington Courier.
"Mary Stuart has finally made it to the Criterion under the direction of Hugh Sorrill, but only after two previous attempts that were stymied by the pandemic...The first-night performance confirmed that it was worth the wait and indeed the persistence of Hugh and a cast displaying many a memorable performance...Deb Relton-Elves manages to capture the dilemmas and indecisiveness facing a female monarch at the time... Leonie Slater portrays the Queen of Scots with assurance tinged by understandable fears." Chris Arnot, Elementarywhatson.com
Deposed, imprisoned and powerless Mary, Queen of Scots represents everything that threatens the life and reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The two women have much in common, having been manipulated by powerful forces around them, but only one can live. A thrilling fictional meeting is at the heart of Schiller’s play in which Mary redeems her youthful crimes through an ordeal that lifts her into realms of spiritual serenity, while Elizabeth descends deeper into rage, revenge and deception. Oswald’s striking adaptation in a mixture of modern prose and poetry is accessible and passionate.
In line with our EDI policy, we undertake an EDI impact assessment of all our artistic programming. ‘Mary Stuart’ has no specific diversity message within its narrative. The play can be cast with complete neutrality on race/ethnicity. Some of its themes call for gender specificity in certain roles.
Elizabeth 1 and Mary Stuart were first cousins, albeit once removed. Considerably removed, as it happened, by the end of this absorbing exploration of their less than cousinly relationship. By that time, Mary Queen of Scots had been condemned to have her head removed by Elizabeth Queen of England.
Having claims to the throne of England. Oh yes, and being a Catholic. Then, as in parts of the world now, people were prepared to murder each other over different ways of worshipping the same god.
“When she is vanished,” Elizabeth mused at one point, “I shall be as free as mountain air.”
“If only,” she might have added. In truth she and her cousin were women trapped in what was very much a man’s world. Elizabeth may have been Queen but it was her “principal adviser”, First Baron Burleigh, who called the shots – or at least “the chop”.
Surly Burleigh is played by a grim-faced Jon Elves, Elizabeth by Deb Relton-Elves who manages to capture the dilemmas and indecisiveness facing a female monarch at the time.
The play was first written only two centuries after the Elizabethan era. By German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, as it happened. It was translated into English far more recently by Peter Oswald, the first playwright-in-residence at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.
Mary Stuart has finally made it to the Criterion under the direction of Hugh Sorrill, but only after two previous attempts that were stymied by the pandemic.
The first-night performance confirmed that it was worth the wait and indeed the persistence of Hugh and a cast displaying many a memorable performance.
Apart from the Elveses mentioned earlier, Ted McGowan captured the almost demented passion of Catholic convert Mortimer as he urged Mary to stand up for their faith and Peter Gillam the comparatively laid-back decadence of the Earl of Leicester. Yes, the one who once welcomed Elizabeth to Kenilworth Castle.
That renowned royal visit was some years after her first cousin once removed had had her head removed by the executioner’s axe.
Just up the road in Coventry several centuries later, Leonie Slater portrays the Queen of Scots with assurance tinged by understandable fears. She gives Mary a saintliness that is hardly warranted, as one of her “pre-chop” confessions confirms.
Still, as the play named after her also confirms, it is faults of character that power dramatic tragedies.
Mary Stuart, Friedrich Schiller’s 19th century masterpiece about the death of Queen Mary, cousin to Elizabeth 1st and rival to the throne, is a slow burning but ultimately magnificent retelling of a clash between two powerful queens.
The play is centred on the political and religious tensions between the two women, one of whom is imprisoned by the other, each surrounded by courtiers hungry for power, driven by ideologies of state and church and sheer naked ambition.This leaves the two women peculiarly vulnerable, and Elizabeth in particular with difficult choices to make. One of them must lead to the death of Mary, a cousin whom she reluctantly, almost mistakenly, sentences to death.
This is a play of high stakes political intrigue. The Elizabethan court was a dangerous place to be, where powerful characters stalked the corridors, and where declarations of love and loyalty could never be taken at face value. Hugh Sorrill’s direction focuses all the attention on the language of the play, staged as it is on a sparsely furnished stage, with the characters in semi-modern dress. It is undoubtedly a wordy play, and a long one, but it provides gripping action throughout.
Deb Relton-Elves gives us a flamboyant, impetuous Elizabeth, her flaming red hair the very embodiment of her character, her fury at her courtiers’ dishonesty a phenomenon to behold. Leonie Slater as Mary is a more subtle, less impassioned character, but no less assured of her rightful destiny. Throughout the play the threat of the axe hangs over her, yet we see that she never wavers in her faith and in her self-belief. This is a woman who can confess to having murdered her husband, yet for whom we can still feel sympathy for her predicament. In her final appearance, dressed in a dazzling white dress, her long neck bare, we are convinced of the carefully spun myth of her martyrdom.
Supporting them are a cast of truly memorable courtiers. The wily spy-master Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth’s devoted protector is played with sour relish by John Elves. Young Mortimer (Ted McGowan), a character invented by Schiller, is hot-headed and promises to free her, yet he too must play the game of subterfuge with her other lover, Robert Dudley, played by Peter Gillam as the ultimate playboy of his age. He is as gorgeous a snake as ever crawled upon the political stage.
Not everyone is duplicitous. There is great love for Mary shown by her jailor, Amias Paulet (Lilian McGrath) whose determination to do her duty responsibly marks her out as one of the more steadfast characters. Her companion Hannah Kennedy (Chris Ingall) is loyal to her mistress till the very end. On Elizabeth’s side, Talbot (Andrew Sharpe) is the voice of reason and moderation.
Mary Stuart takes a big subject and roots it firmly in powerful characters and fine acting. It is a melodrama in the best sense, that touches deep wells of passion. The production was delayed twice by the pandemic but has been well worth the wait.
Nick Le Mesurier