When Friedrich von Schiller took up the battle royal between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots in Maria Stuart (1800), he was writing what we now call a docudrama. If, today, someone like Oliver Stone fools around with the facts when dealing with recent history, we’re appalled; but when Schiller and Shakespeare take liberties with more distant events, we’re delighted. And who wouldn’t be? Anyone interested in edge-of-your-seat theater has got to jump for joy at Schiller’s having decided that, even though the two queens never laid eyes on one another, he’d give them a white-hot confrontation in his play. Further cause for rejoicing is the fact that Schiller wrote both women as strong and cunning. He made certain that, when rubbed together like two sticks, Mary and Elizabeth–here “Maria” and “Elisabet”–would give off sparks.
Now, Ingmar Bergman’s stunning treatment of Maria Stuart has come to BAM. Realizing that history is more often decided by the wrangling of men and women with conflicting agendas, the playwright produced a work that shows how the powerful jockey for grace and favor. In reviving Schiller for the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden (Dramaten), Bergman focuses on the various facets of power-mongering in a way that cancels any possibility of talky dullness. What the director understands is that power, frustration, and sexuality are often commingled; as a consequence, Maria Stuart is probably sexier in his production than it’s ever been before. (To cite two examples: Elizabeth and the lubricious Leicester get it on while ladies-in-waiting hold up a discreet velvet curtain, and Mary does some pelvis bumping of her own after she’s had a momentary triumph over her sister monarch.)
Talk about sibling rivalry! Here it is with no holds barred. Although, according to history, Elizabeth kept Mary immured at Fotheringhay for 21 years, Schiller only zooms for Mary’s final three days. During the play, Mary (Pernilla August), sensing that her numbered days are all but over, suddenly spots a ray of hope when Mortimer (Stefan Larsson), an ally from France, arrives to say that he and colleagues are planning a rescue mission. Mary also thinks that the ubiquitous court manipulator Leicester (Mikael Persbrandt) will help her to gain freedom at last; he has been the Queen’s favorite but, as Schiller fudges it, he’s also enamored of Mary.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth (Lena Endre) wants Mary eliminated but won’t be decisive about it because she doesn’t want to do anything that will make her look bad in the eyes of her people. Waffling, she allows Leicester to talk her into an accidentally-on-purpose encounter with Mary. When Mary gets the better of her during their charged meeting, Elizabeth is more convinced than ever that she must disregard her more temperate advisers and heed those who maintain that Mary’s life could lead to a Papist resurgence in England. And so Mary goes the way of all flesh following a long and saintly farewell scene.
Schiller’s brilliance is in the number of scenes he writes where opposing forces talk continuous, high-flown, explicit and implicit talk to one another. Mortimer and Leicester face off. Mary’s conscientious jailer Paulet (Ingvar Kjellson) and Elizabeth’s advisor Burleigh (Borje Ahlstedt) contend, with the latter discoursing on a courtier’s need to understand a tacit order and echoing Henry II on the subject of Thomas à Becket by uttering a variation on Henry’s famous manipulative remark, “Who will not rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Elizabeth refuses to tell the Earl of Shrewsbury outright that he must act on the death warrant she’s signed. If nothing else, Maria Stuart is a fascinating study on the subtleties of communication.
Of course, it’s more. It’s also the magnetic study of two sublimely intelligent women, one as unsure of how to proceed as Hamlet is and the other certain of her faith but only reluctantly resigned to her fate. That Schiller titled his work Maria Stuart rather than Maria and Elisabet is a clear indication of where his sympathy lies. Although Mary continues to feel guilty about her part in the murder of her second husband (Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley), her Catholicism is unwavering; Elizabeth’s only conviction is that she must do whatever it takes to remain triumphantly enthroned. (Dioceses around the world, shaken by current scandals, might want to schedule pick-up productions of Maria Stuart so that shaken parishioners can get a load of Mary’s steadfast belief.)
Always a supernal director, the octogenarian Bergman has realized the piece’s full potential, but not without taking some liberties of his own. He’s rearranged scenes so that Elizabeth, who is introduced late by Schiller, is seen holding court even before Mary is discovered in her stark confines. Indeed, Bergman almost always keep the ladies on stage throughout each other’s actions, and that’s after his bringing all of the tragedy’s characters on in a curtain-raising coup de théâtre.
As Mary and Elizabeth, respectively, Pernilla August and Lena Endre are like parallel lines that don’t meet; their intelligence informs everything they do and say, as does their humanity. August, who has a relatively round face and plumpish figure, possesses the earthiness of someone not necessarily born to the purple, but when she speaks it’s with a queen’s trained tongue. Endre has the face of a porcelain doll and a slim torso. Indeed, feature for feature, Endre is more conventionally beautiful than August, a fact at odds with a script in which Elizabeth admits being threatened by the possible effects of Mary’s reputed beauty. As a matter of further historical fact: In 1887, which is when the play is set, Elizabeth was 54 and Mary was 45. Neither actress looks to be the actual age of the woman she’s portraying, not that this really matters in docudrama.
The cast, 27 strong, also includes Erland Josephson as an old friend and confidant of Mary and Gunnel Lindblom as her nanny. They and the others measure up to the leading ladies, and everyone looks regal against Goran Wassberg’s sets, which are as tall as castle walls and as gloomy as the text. The members of Elizabeth’s court wear costumes that Charles Koroly has designed in rich, blood-red fabrics while Mary and her retinue wear shades of gray. The dramatic lighting is by Hans Akesson; the dramatic music is by Daniel Bortz; and the dramatic wigs are by Leif Qvistrom and Eva-Maria Holm-Kartzeff.
N. B.: The Swedish translation spoken here is by Britt G. Hallqvist; the English version that is trasmitted to the audience through earphones is a crisp yet supple one by Michael Feingold, though the voice-over actors who deliver it do so far from thrillingly. With the exception of the woman reading the Scots queen, these folks intone the text as if they’ve been told not to emote on pain of a death worse than Mary’s.