Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter give bravura performances in this excellent production of Friedrich Schiller's historical drama.
The actresses benefit from Schiller's construction -- by way of a new Peter Oswald version -- in that the play involves a series of scenes in which one or the other takes stage and, well, holds court. Only at one point does Schiller merrily thumb his nose at historical record and contrive to have the two grand dames confront each other with a face-off that never really happened, but in both the writing and the performing here, the scene is worth the admission price (and nearly three-hour length).
Actually, Schiller is fast and loose with the facts throughout the play, as he retells the high-concept tale of Mary, Queen of Scots, who is imprisoned in Fotheringhay Castle on suspicion of having plotted to assassinate her ruling cousin Elizabeth so as to gain the English crown and reestablish Catholicism as the national religion.
Interested in more than mere history, Schiller's main concern is whether anyone truly wins high-stakes power games. Accordingly, he surrounds the two Queens by sundry loyal and disloyal pawns, such as the sympathetic Earl of Shrewsbury (Brian Murray), the loyal but chilly Lord Burleigh (Nicholas Woodeson), the harsh but ethical Sir Amias Paulet (Michael Countryman), and the baffled and eventually betrayed Sir William Davison (Robert Stanton). The see-sawing queens are especially abetted -- often in suspect circumstances -- by Paulet's nephew, (the made-up) Mortimer (Chandler Williams), who has arranged Mary's escape, and the Earl of Leicester (John Benjamin Hickey), who's been lover to both Mary and Elizabeth and knows how to play one against the other without ever revealing his true feelings. All the men wear contemporary suits and this year's striped regimental ties to brand them as timeless bureaucrats, whereas inspired set-and-costume-designer Anthony Ward keeps the three women -- including Mary's loyal nurse, Hanna Kennedy (Maria Tucci) -- in period clothes.
The indisputable piece de resistance is the meeting between the royal cousins on Fotheringhay grounds after Mary has been doused in a sudden (and effectively executed) shower. McTeer is alternately groveling and defiant, while Walter is tautly confident and then just as tautly uncertain. Throughout the play, McTeer conveys the air of someone who could very well have plotted murder, and Walter gives off the air of someone who could endorse a beheading without seeming to. The supporting players are uniformly persuasive, although sometimes they equate English accents with actorly grandiosity.
Those who saw the show's London Donmar Warehouse production in its original thrust-stage venue (also with McTeer and Walter) may have to deal with an adjustment seeing it on a proscenium stage. Some depth has been lost, a development further exaggerated by Ward moving forward his false and painted-black back wall. The change has flattened the play in more ways than one, too often giving it the diminishing look of an historical tableau. Luckily, though, there's no flattening the brilliance of Walter and McTeer.