By the time Friedrich Schiller wrote his play the real Mary Stuart had been dead for more than 200 years; the meeting between Mary and Elizabeth that he describes never took place in real life and is set in a past that to him was already distant. Caught between these layers of historical background, the idea of bringing period realism to this production becomes a complicated one, but director Maddy Trépanier understands that it is the strangeness of its setting that brings the play to life.
Certainly Schiller’s most well-known drama among English audiences, Mary Stuart follows the power struggle between Mary I of Scotland (Flora Macangus) and her cousin Queen Elizabeth (Vee Thames), leading up to the execution of Mary. The women command attention on stage in the most impressive costumes I have seen on a Cambridge Theatre stage thus far, and while they underscore the force of the characters, they also highlight their separation from the other figures, dressed in modern all-black outfits. As the story progresses and the other characters flit around them with increasing speed and urgency, it becomes unclear how much agency the queens really possess.
There is a history of sorting the two women into familiar categories: old and young, virgin and whore, Catholic and Protestant. Of course none of these adequately capture the real people behind them, and the production succeeds in highlighting the forces that are tirelessly working to set the women up against each other. When they finally meet face-to-face, Mary points out that their roles could just as easily be reversed: ‘Fate is to blame, not you or I.’ It gradually emerges that perhaps it is really the male network of courtiers and advisors that controls the outcome of their story.
Thames delivers a strong performance as Elizabeth, diffusing her advisors’ clipped enunciation with a hollow and affected singsong. Especially in the final moments of the play, she manages to conjure a moving balance of dejection and determination. Macangus shines particularly in the scenes between Mary and her servant Kennedy (Lydia Makrides), tender moments female camaraderie that evoke a great amount of emotional depth.
The genderblind casting of the rest of the ensemble is well-handled. Rather than offering a one-note understanding of the play’s gender dynamic, it complicates its depictions of brutality and ambition. Jo Heywood’s performance of Mortimer starts off with fresh naivete and descends into an upsetting show of violence in an especially well-staged scene in the play’s second half. Meanwhile Ben Philipps’ Lord Burleigh is a commanding presence, and the skill of his acting stands out particularly in moments when he is not the central focus of the scene, but quietly scheming in the background.
The Round Church is an intimate venue that is ideal for the conspiratorial environment of the play. The actors pass behind the audience to enter the stage and thus lines to the effect of ‘I hear her coming!’, which often come across as stilted, instead create a truly immersive experience. It is also a testament to the production’s engrossing quality that the gigantic column that was blocking my view of half the stage put me on edge in a way that actually seemed to add to the tense atmosphere. The production is aware of its venue in a way that is smart, but never annoyingly so, and the choir that accompanied scene changes was one of the highlights of the show.
Seldom have I found myself in church and not wishing for an interval, but when it came I found myself unwilling to step out of the captivating world of the play. The performance’s second half felt less tightly paced and the humour in the plotline involving Davidson (Adam Hardy) delivering the letter felt slightly too uncertain; nonetheless Mary Stuart at the Round Church is a successful production that should not be missed.