Mary Stuart at Bath Theatre Royal

FRIEDRICH Schiller’s play Mary Stuart could hardly be more timely than in a mid-Brexit Britain teetering on an uncertain future with the threats of religious fanaticism and mindless violence filling our consciousness.

Robert Icke’s stunning production for the Almeida, centering on and amplifying an imagined meeting between English Queen Elizabeth I and her cousin Mary Queen of Scots, brings a terrifying relevance and modernity.

The Protestant Schiller, in his 1800 play, created the character of Mortimer, nephew of Mary’s jailer, engaged in a double deceit aimed at freeing the imprisoned queen and leading a Catholic uprising. In Icke’s stark modern dress production, the reckless young Mortimer’s description of his first exposure to the Catholic Mystery has a profound lyrical intensity that explains his radical conversion. It’s an eye-opener.

The central figures are, of course, Mary and Elizabeth, and any successful production depends on two powerful actors to bring them to life. Here, in a brilliant conceit, Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams swap the roles, at the spin of a coin, each night, emphasising the similarity of their situations and their almost-mirrored identities.

After selling out at the tiny Almei­da and at its West End transfer, the production is in Bath until 14th April, where a handful of tickets are available on most nights. And it’s an opportunity you shouldn’t miss.

Not only are these two actresses at the heights of their powers, but the production peels back any layers of wordy worthiness in the five-hour long original to reveal the Virgin Queen driven by desire to serve her people, satisfy her ministers and grab some personal tenderness, and her passionate cousin, unable to let go of her claim to a throne to which she was born.  What is remarkable about this production is that these two women are totally un-stagey, at the centre of a theatrical presentation of their fraught lives.

It’s not just the spin of the coin – whatever either decides they are doomed, and they know it.

The strong ensemble is led by the smoothly calculating Burleigh (Elliot Levey), the charismatic Leicester (John Light), the wise and affectionate Talbot (Michael Byrne) and Rudi Dharmaling­ham’s fiery Mortimer.

I can’t wait to see it again, with fingers crossed that the coin spin gives the alternative casting.


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