Bitchy queens and their unruly courts are quite the flavour of the month, aren’t they?
There’s big screen Oscars pick The Favourite with Queen Anne and her scheming same-sex suitors. Princess Margaret is proving quite the handful on Netflix’s The Crown. Meghan (Markle) and Kate (Middleton) are at each other’s throats, if you believe the supermarket tabloids at the moment. And that’s before Sin City’s fiercest strut Oxford Street next month.
On Sydney Theatre Company’s main stage, two steely queens (and cousins) – Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots – are at bloody war. Though historians, in fact, say they never actually met. Mary Stuart, the 1800 play by German Friedrich Schiller impeccably distilled here by Kate Mulvany, never minds that, setting up a verbal joust feistier than any RuPaul lip sync battle. And with significantly higher stakes.
And if that all sounds a horribly sexist portrayal of powerful women in the world, well that’s kind of the point. At least Mulvaney’s point in taking on this dusty tale.
Mary, imprisoned by Elizabeth, stands accused of abandoning her realm, killing her husband and conspiring to overthrow the English crown. Or, as she claims, was she simply escaping a violent home and seeking sanctuary from her cousin? It’s funny how the narrative shifts when not filtered through men. That, at least, the cousins can agree on – male manipulators have pitted them against each other regardless of circumstance.
Like last year’s Saint Joan, the brilliant STC retelling of George Bernard Shaw’s classic by Imara Savage, Mulvany unfaithfully takes an old book by an old man and shifts the gaze to a more modern matriarchy. They may still burn at the stake, or lose their heads, but they will at least have the chance to explain themselves first. Director Lee Lewis creates all the necessary space for that, with a firm yet invisible hand.
And like last year’s The Harp In the South, the magical melodrama adapted by Mulvany for STC last year, she injects Mary Stuart with a fizzy lyricism – colloquial and silly accent-free – that propels narrative and negotiates wild emotional shifts with ease. It’s smart and funny and quite delicious to hear performed; not the verse prose of the original but with its own distinct rhythm.
If there’s a flaw in the work it’s an inequity between the two protagonists. The production design, simple but effective by Elizabeth Gadsby with fabulous costumes by Mel Page, has Mary and Beth share the same bully pulpit, a stone podium that acts as throneroom and prison (it’s wonderfully lit with contrast by Paul Jackson). But the Queen very much overshadows the deposed.
Perhaps that’s in the writing, either Schiller’s original or Mulvany’s update. Or perhaps that’s the performance of Caroline Brazier as Mary. In the long opening scene a blithe Mary discusses her miserable lot with jailor/confidante Paulet (a sniveling Simon Burke, leading a strong supporting cast), but remains an enigma. You feel Brazier could have put a stronger stamp on her. Only as execution looms are we clearer on who this woman is, and in those moments of breaking Brazier is terrific, a picture of stately, fragile porcelain.
Perhaps, too, the inequity is down to the performance of Helen Thomson, who is a towering Elizabeth from her first entrance. Thomson is a gifted comedian, drawing laughs from tough material before in Harp, Hir, Top Girls, et al, in the last few years. But it’s how she employs that timing to pivot, with breathtaking impact, that makes her such a compelling artist. Her Elizabeth is a naive narcissist who, when confronted with ordering the death of her cousin, becomes believably tortured by the responsibility. As good as Brazier can be, Thompson’s absences from the stage make you long for her return.
And that I, too, just pitted two talented women against each other for the sake of criticism is not lost on me. We’re all part of the problem, after all.
There is something about Mary, no doubt. But it’s Elizabeth you really have to watch in this near-perfect piece of theatre.
Mary Stuart plays the Roslyn Packer Theatre until March 2
Image: Rahel Romahn, Andrew McFarlane, Helen Thomson, Tony Cogin and Peter Carroll in STC’s Mary Stuart. Photo by Brett Boardman