nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 3, 2008
Glyn Maxwell is not the first writer to be seduced by Mary Stuart, nor will he likely be the last. His play The Lifeblood, which is receiving its New York premiere from Phoenix Theatre Ensemble, tells a fascinating story of the web of intrigue surrounding the arrest, trial, and execution (or, viewed from another angle, the entrapment, condemnation, and murder) of Mary, Queen of Scots—a riveting tale of cool, calculated manipulation. But the playwright undermines himself by letting the glamorous queen take center stage in a play that might be better served by her not being in it at all.
Which is not to say that the Mary he's written—an indomitable force of nature, at once achingly romantic and tough-mindedly pragmatic—doesn't provide grand opportunities for Elise Stone to demonstrate her superb gifts as an actor. Stone, who hasn't had a part this meaty in several years, is terrific as the imprisoned queen, here spouting out orders to her jailer with a command and confidence that spectacularly belie her circumstance, there almost girlishly investing all her remaining hope in the stranger who has come seemingly out of nowhere to rescue her.
But Stone's magnificence notwithstanding, what's most interesting about The Lifeblood is not Mary's fall but the machinations of her enemy, Sir Francis Walsingham, to engineer it. In the very first scenes, we see Walsingham lurking in the shadows (just above Mary's prison on George Xenos's well-thought-out two-level set), setting into motion the trap that will undo his prey once and for all. Soon the fatal missive is delivered to Mary's servant/secretary, George Arno—a promise from a mysterious young man to free the queen, execute her enemy Elizabeth I of England, and place Mary on the English throne. But it is Walsingham, not Arno, who reads the letter aloud to us; we understand right away that everything that will happen from here on will be his doing and no one else's.
The play's most striking scene is its last one, after Mary has been tried and beheaded. I don't want to give too much away, but suffice to say that Walsingham is as Machiavellian an anti-hero as any I've ever seen on stage. His replacement of expediency for morality is stunning; shattering.
Unfortunately we learn very little about his motivation: his prejudice against Mary's Catholicism feels more political than spiritual, but its true nature really isn't explored much. Nevertheless, Craig Smith is splendid as Walsingham, matching Stone as he must note for note and providing a deft and uncomfortable ambivalent center to the play: he truly is a villain we love to hate.
Director Robert Hupp (and/or perhaps the playwright) tries to make this gripping story feel more pertinent in the age of Guantanamo by introducing some deliberate anachronisms in the staging. The most notable of these is to place Mary's three "judges" behind very modern microphones (at desks placed behind the audience), making these inquisitors feel more like Senators at a Congressional hearing than 16th century noblemen. Jarringly out of time, too, are the single light bulb that illuminates Mary's cell and the ballpoint pen she uses to compose her letters. I'm not sure these touches work well: though Walsingham's scheming is clearly timeless, Mary's situation is singular and very much of its time. And Maxwell is very clear that Mary is in her way as guilty of an ends-justifying-the-means attitude as her accuser: when she understands that her rescuers mean to also kill her rival Elizabeth, she dismisses the plan as "theirs," not hers, rationalizing her way out of any accountability for the crime they say they'll commit on her behalf.
Though Mary and Walsingham are in every way the pivotal characters in The Lifeblood, there are others of interest in the play, including Mary's jailer, the Puritan Sir Amyas Paulet, depicted with appropriate complexity by Mark Waterman; and the young man who works for Walsingham and poses as Mary's deliverer, Sir Thomas Gorge, played as a strapping, noble, and ultimately conflicted man by Jason O'Connell.
The Lifeblood provides some interesting twists on a story that's been told on stage before; I wish Maxwell had really dug into his unique perspective and fleshed out the behind-the-scenes drama even more than he does here. This is nevertheless a fairly fresh look at the last act of the Queen of Scots' life, one that leaves us hungry for more details about this embattled figure—and that satisfies us with the estimable presence of Phoenix co-founders Stone and Smith doing what they do best, lighting up a stage with bold and larger-than-life performances.