As the Queen of Scots walks to her execution in Schiller’s >Mary Stuart, she breaks off to confront the Earl of Leicester, the man who has vacillated in his affections and allegiance between her and Queen Elizabeth. Mary spits at Leicester: “You chose the hard heart, not the tender one.”
That might sum up the central conflict in the play, which pits two visions of womanhood, and queenhood, against each other, and the world of men in which they must operate.
Phyllida Lloyd ‘s London production, transferred from the Donmar to the Apollo, makes the most of this magnificent conflict, putting the women in period dress and the men in modern bureaucrat uniform of suit and briefcase. The women are at centre stage, literally in the spotlight, but they are buffetted by waves of men seeking through flattery, through blackmail, through trickery and even sometimes force, to turn them into mere puppets.
Elizabeth (an award-winning performance from Harriet Walter) stands up to this assault with imperious ice – her backbone is always straight, her face always controlled; she allows herself to apparently be won over by flattery and guile, but her hard heart is always ready to identify her real interests. The dignity of her position never entirely forgotten, even when Leicester (Guy Henry) is at his seductively slimy best.
Mary, by contrast, in an equally fine performance by Janet McTeer, is yielding, soft, fast-moving, her body leaping from passion to passion, just like her heart. This body betrays her weakness. It is a traditional female approach to dealing with men, but for this queen a disastrous one.
I last saw this play with a fringe company under some railway arches in Southwark. That was in interesting performance, but it is here, in the grand setting of the Apollo, on a wisely wide-open stage that suggests both isolation, but also imprisonment, with its grim black walls, that the full scope of Schiller’s magnificent writing can be unleashed.
He’s a writer who manages to blend the public and private, realpolitik and real passion, in ways that leave the audience hanging on ever word. His work can only be given the highest praise as Shakespearean, but he was writing for a different audience, and there is laughter here, but not from buffoonery and slapstick, rather with the bitter tinge of inevitable conundrums laid out. David Horovitch plays the Machievellian Burleigh with a distinct Yes Minister tinge, that gets the laugh, but here the issues are life and death, rather than House of Commons points.
It is hard to write about this production without gushing; it is that good. See it if you can. (And hope that the recent Schiller successes will soon send more of his plays our way.)