Saturday, May 30, 2009

Schiller's "Mary Stuart"

Originally written in 1801, this play is now enjoying a critically acclaimed revival on Broadway, running in the Broadhurst Theatre, directed by Phyllida Lloyd. The new English version, written by Peter Oswald, has the noble density of Shakespearian language. The freezing of pity's fluid reminds me of Macbeth. SW heard echoes of King Lear. Mortimer's explanation of his conversion to Catholicism, when he was touched through his senses by the images of the old religion, is high Romantic poetry, as is his self-destructive passion for Mary. The passion, entirely believable in a dashing Chandler Williams, contrasts sharply with the coldly calculative English court. 

As to the construction of the play, Act One feels overburdened by exposition, whereas Act Two is shattering in its drama, particularly in the meeting of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth Tudor, a confrontation between queens Schiller imagined with tremendous power. Like all poets who write, or rewrite, history, Schiller takes pains to show how the personal affects the political, that the two cannot be disentangled. What finally convinces Elizabeth to sign off on the execution of Mary, according to the play, is Mary's insult against Elizabeth's bastardy. The personal makes for good drama, of course, even if it does not make for good history. 

The other powerful scene is a much more quietly affecting one. Before she is led off to her execution, Mary is shrived by an old attendant who smuggled in the sacraments in order to give the queen the Catholic last rites. In her confession, she admits to allowing the murder of her husband by not preventing the plot against his life. But she adamantly insists that she is innocent of conspiracy against Elizabeth's throne, the charge for which she would be beheaded. Since Schiller did not have supporting historical evidence (such as John Guy's excellent biography of Mary Queen of Scots), his decision to make Mary wholly innocent is significant. 

Janet McTeer was a convincing Scottish queen, headstrong, clever, desperate. Harriet Walter was darker in her portrayal of Elizabeth, as befitted a queen torn up by a thousand insecurities. The rest of the cast was also revelatory. Michael Countryman played the upright Sir Amias Paulet, Mary's jailer, without a hint of priggishness. Nicholas Woodeson was a malevolent dwarf, Lord Burleigh. Brian Murray was a worldly and weary Earl of Shrewsbury. John Benjamin Hickey, as the Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth's favorite, was pathetic in his ambition. 

When death comes to Mary, it comes as a form of release. Freedom is a much repeated word in the closing scenes. The sparse set was backed by a stone wall that stretched across the whole stage and disappeared into the black heights. Mary's goal, it imprisons Elizabeth finally, when her advisers retreat into the wings, and leave their sovereign alone in the diminishing light. 

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