As the audience quiets and the cast stand waiting on stage, Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson approach from either side. After a dramatic pause, one calls heads or tails. A coin is spun in a dish, and falls to one side. The loser is imprisoned as Mary Stuart. The winner is bowed to as Elizabeth I.
It’s an appropriate beginning to a play about two queens whose fates could really turn on the spin of a coin, the chance of a minute. Elizabeth may be the one in power, but as Mary points out to her, the pair are the same in many ways. The two actresses present as identical, with short haircuts and simple suits: they look the same for most of the play, it’s only at the end that Elizabeth is clad in the imposing regalia she was famous for, while Mary is reduced to wearing a simple shift as she awaits her execution.
Schiller’s play Mary Stuart, based on the real-life drama of Queen Elizabeth and her imprisoned Catholic cousin the Queen of Scots, compresses the action into a couple of days and imagines a meeting between the two that in real life never took place, yet makes for some pretty good drama. Robert Icke’s new version is sharp and modern, and in conjunction with the modern dress of the production emphasises the twenty-first century relevance of the subject matter, with its religious conflict, political intrigue and references to refugees.
Performance-wise, the play is a masterclass in acting, with the added frisson of not knowing who is playing the main roles until the performance begins. If I’d known, I’d have booked a matinee and an evening performance – on two-performance days, the actors spin a coin for the matinee and swap roles for the evening – in order to see both actors in each role, but never mind. At the performance I saw, Juliet Stevenson played Mary and she was superb, alternately loving, angry and resentful, appealing and inspiring of great loyalty. Lia Williams if possible was even better as Elizabeth, strong, proud, politically astute and manipulative. The pair are supported by a strong cast, including an excellent John Light as Leicester and Vincent Franklin as Burleigh. All involved manage to capture the rhythm of Schiller’s language (well, the English translation of it, anyway).
Mary Stuart was the first show I saw in 2017 and I certainly hope it sets a precedent for the rest of the year: profound, clever and superbly acted, a triumph for the Almeida.