nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
April 29, 2006
In response to vague and unsubstantiated threats of aggression, the government has hastily enacted some laws to help them prosecute the parties they believe to be responsible. One of the parties—an overthrown monarch of a smaller nation—has been imprisoned and now awaits a certain death sentence, despite protestations that the tribunal was illegal and in violation of international law."Suspect a justice / That seems to work so to the state's advantage," says the prisoner. "O, poor victim, when the men who wrote the law / Are prosecutors, judge, and jury too!"
No, it's not a play about Saddam Hussein and post-9/11 America; it's Mary Stuart, Friedrich Schiller's 1801 tragedy about Mary, Queen of Scots. In Michael Feingold's clear translation and Eleanor Holdridge's equally accessible staging, the parallels between then and now are illuminated in riveting fashion, though: the scenes of behind-the-scenes intrigue and manipulations remind us that long before there was Watergate or Plamegate there was plenty to be suspicious of in the halls of power. Kudos to the Pearl Theatre Company for showing us this fine and neglected classic, and giving us a chance to appreciate how timely and useful it is.
The play condenses actual incidents from English history surrounding the rivalry between Mary Stuart, one-time Queen of Scotland, and Elizabeth Tudor, her cousin, now Queen Elizabeth I. (There's a nice summary of the historical events here.) As the play opens, Mary has been tried by an English kangaroo court for her alleged involvement in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth (which she denies), and she has, as expected, been sentenced to death. But Queen Elizabeth is reluctant to carry out the sentence, and not only because she feels some sort of tenuous familial bond for Mary; she worries that the people will turn against her if she is seen to be the murderer of her cousin-queen. At the same time, as long as the Catholic Mary lives, she remains an authentic threat to Elizabeth's grip on the throne (in the eyes of the Catholic Church, Henry's marriage to Elizabeth's mother Anne Boleyn was illegitimate, making Elizabeth a bastard and Mary of Scotland the rightful heir to Henry's kingdom).
Half of Mary Stuart details, with appropriate suspense and machination, the endless plotting among Elizabeth and her closest advisors to try to deal with the problem of the imprisoned Scottish queen. It's fascinating stuff, offering a portrait of Elizabeth as a vain, preening woman and a shrewd manipulator of the men around her—the quintessential politician in a court filled with them. The other half of the play tracks Mary's journey toward a sort of martyrdom, as efforts by friends old and new fail to win her the reprieve she dearly covets. In the end, Schiller (or at least Schiller by way of Feingold) seems to marvel at Elizabeth's scheming pragmatism but to genuinely admire Mary's idealistic nobility as she courageously marches to the block with a clear conscience and a piously pure soul.
Along the way, Schiller famously invents an episode that never actually happened: a meeting between the two rival queens. It's a great scene, positively the dramatic highpoint of the play, and demonstrates definitively the thing that heretofore only Mary and Elizabeth themselves seem to have realized—that they, and only they, are authentic matches for one another. The sparks really do fly when they have their confrontation.
Inhabiting the two regal roles are the reigning queens of the Pearl Theatre Company's resident acting company. Joanne Camp is alternately restrained and passionate as Mary, while Carol Schultz emphasizes Elizabeth's vanity and deviousness. Their scene together is splendid, while separately they firmly anchor the rest of the proceedings effortlessly.
Mary's supporters include her lifelong nurse Hannah (played with understated sincerity by Beth Dixon), and the rash and romantic young Mortimer, an Englishman who turns his back on his country to rescue the wronged Scottish queen from her prison (portrayed by Sean McNall with requisite fervor and immaturity). By Elizabeth's side stand the stalwart anti-Catholic Lord Burleigh (Dominic Cuskern, in a stern, committed performance) and the wiser Earl of Shrewsberry (solidly played by Richard Bourg). Caught in between are a variety of underlings, well represented by the hapless William Davison (Noel Velez), whose lack of authority is ruthlessly exploited by his monarch; along with the treacherous Earl of Leicester (Bryan Hicks), onetime lover of Mary and now favorite of Elizabeth.
Other noteworthy players include Edward Seamon as Mary's reluctant and merciful jailer Sir Amyas Paulet and T.J. Edwards as Mary's steward, Melvil.
As they so often do, the Pearl gives us here a straightforward and unencumbered look at a classic but lesser-known play; Mary Stuart is not a work that gets produced very often, and I'm pleased to have had the opportunity to see it in this commendable production. If we can find in it some echoes of our own current political circumstance, well, that just confirms that history repeats itself—seemingly over and over again.