This review was originally written for The Public Reviews
Schiller’s Mary Stuart is a notably multifaceted play. With its (highly, highly dramatized) polarisation of the two sixteenth-century monarchs, Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, it draws a lucid thread through a host of thought-provoking issues then pins them to the wall of quasi-history with a theatrical flourish that confirms their timeless relevance. Attitudes towards female empowerment in a male-dominated society, the futility of religious conflict, the nature of justice and, above all else, the responsibilities of an authoritarian ruler – all are available but it is this last that Oxford Theatre Guild, staging Peter Oswald’s updated translation at the Oxford Playhouse, choose to focus on with variable success.
Cathy Oakes stars as the eponymous – and by the play’s opening, dethroned – Catholic monarch of Scotland, opposite Rachel Pearson as her cousin, the reigning Protestant Virgin Queen of England. Mary has been found guilty of plotting to against her cousin and has been imprisoned at Fotheringay Castle awaiting her sentence, yet Elizabeth is indecisive over Mary’s fate. This indecision precipitates a storm of intrigue and treachery, culminating in an – entirely fictitious – meeting between the two and resulting, as even this flowery history must, in Mary’s execution.
A valiant attempt is made to emphasise the contradictory nature of the two women’s positions. Pearson’s Elizabeth, ostensibly powerful yet imprisoned by the arguments of court and the desires of the mob, is weary of her duty and longs for the freedom she has denied herself. Oakes’ Mary, on the other hand, is physically confined at Fotheringay, yet is without the chains of royal servitude placed upon her cousin. In truth, Pearson and Oakes do not emphasise this distinction enough; their grief, their joy, and their frustration are all laudably enthusiastic, but too generic to elucidate such a nuance.
In contrast, the technical devices used to mirror said paradox are all too subtle. Lighting shifts, changes in music accompaniment, and varying designs in costume and set – all are commendable for their intention, and most do on occasion engender moments of clarity, but their failure to marry comfortably with the performances of Pearson and Oakes, both stylistically and practically, somewhat detracts from their impact. The frequent appearance of ethereal figures, for example, stalking haughtily about the set, bathed in a pale blue stage-wash and accompanied by Jon Ouin’s original score, is an elegant and innovative directorial idea – the figures represent the spectres of Elizabeth and Mary, each haunting the other – but one that is arguably incompatible with the scope of this production.
Elsewhere, Richard Readshaw and Joe Kenneway exude some much-needed realism as Lord Burleigh, a close advisor to the Queen, and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and the Queen’s impatient favourite. Adam Diaper is perhaps miscast as the hot-headed Catholic radical Sir Mortimer, whose designs to save Mary are central to the plot’s progression, but he displays enjoyable panache nonetheless. James Silk brings a welcome drop of comedy as Sir Davison, the young Secretary of State paralysed with intimidation.
Ultimately, Hedda Bird’s production suffers from its own praiseworthy ambition. The performances are enjoyable, if not riveting; the direction is dynamic, but too obviously contrived to deceive an audience (there seemed to be an awful lot of characters circling one another, for example); the design is high-minded, yet stretched beyond its means. Mary Stuart is a play that deserves to be treated with the gravitas and respect it deserves, however, and Oxford Theatre Guild cannot be criticised for their admirable intent.