I wanted to start this review by saying that for me, seeing Mary Stuart meant watching two usually superb actresses, Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter , chew the scenery for nearly three hours. But then, this production of Friedrich Schiller's 1800 play has precious little scenery to chew - a stark black back wall, a prison bed, a bench. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)
Look, I love Janet McTeer. I thought she was nuanced and superb on Broadway back in 1997 as Nora in A Doll's House, the performance for which she won a best-actress Tony Award. I know that Harriet Walter won the Evening Standard Award in London for playing Queen Elizabeth I in this production, which began at the Donmar Warehouse and moved to the West End. I'm aware that the play itself is intense and powerful. And I realize that I'm in the minority - that most critics have loved this production and these actresses.
But what can I say? From the opening moments, all I felt was distance and disbelief. I didn't for a minute - make that a second - believe that McTeer was Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, or that Walter was Elizabeth. All I saw were two actresses letting us all know that they were "Acting." See the emotion! See the anger! See the distress!
They, and the rest of the cast, just didn't make anything matter, didn't draw me in, didn't get me involved in the religious disputes and political machinations of late 16th century England, or the personalities of and the battle between the monarchs. O.K., Mary was Catholic and Elizabeth Protestant, and Mary wanted to bring Catholicism back to England and rule over both countries, and there had been a plot to kill Elizabeth, and maybe Mary led the plot and maybe she didn't. And yes, Elizabeth's decision to send Mary to the chopping block affected Elizabeth's inner soul. But up on the stage of the Broadhurst Theater, it all seemed long ago and far away, with nothing in the production to make it up close and personal.
Maybe it was the acting style, all British technique and no real emotion. Could this Mary have arranged for the murder of her husband and then married the murderer? No. This was only an actress acting. In the eagerly awaited Act Two scene in which the two queens meet, it was all histrionics, not performance.
Maybe it was the directorial choice to eschew the scenery, perhaps to make everything seem timeless - only to again create coolness and distance, in basic black. Perhaps it was the decision to dress Elizabeth and Mary in period costume but have all the male members of Elizabeth's court dress alike in modern dark suit, shiny black shoes, white shirt and tie, which had the effect of separating them widely in time and space.
Possibly the director wished to make a statement that the members of the court were akin to a faceless bureaucracy. Or perhaps it was a declaration that all men are alike. But the fact is that in the play, the men are all different, with differing motives, beliefs, political goals. For me, the suits didn't work - to make the subtleties of the plot fully work, you have to be able to tell the men apart, appreciate the nuance. All men aren't alike - they may all be cunning, plotting and evil, but they are cunning, plotting and evil each in their separate ways.
Maybe it's the director, Phyllida Lloyd. She has had a distinguished career in London directing classics and contemporary works - Shakespeare, Congreve, Joe Orton, John Guare. But she is best known for that abomination called Mamma Mia!
The males are all fine - among them Michael Countryman as Sir Amias Paulet, Mary's jailor- Chandler Williams as Mortimer, her loyal conspirator- Nicholas Woodeson as Lord Burleigh, her sworn enemy a