Lucy Peacock (left) as Mary Stuart and Seana McKenna as Elizabeth with members of the company. Photo by David Hou.
Reviewed by James Karas
Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart is a long and ambitious play. It is about the confrontation between Mary Queen of Scots and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I and deals at some length with legality, justice, religion, treachery, loyalty, love and international relations. That could result in verbosity leading to tedium but the current production at the Tom Patterson Theatre with its all-star cast, is a theatrical tour de force.
Much of the credit goes to the deft handling of the production by Director Antoni Cimolino. He has inserted a several coups de théâtre such as putting the intermission in the middle of Act III just as Mary and Elizabeth meet. But that is the least of his intelligent, judicious and indeed outstanding direction.
He is lucky in having an outstanding cast.
Mary Stuart pits two proud, imperious and ambitious women with claims to the throne of England and different religions. The conflict was real but the two women never met. Mary is a prisoner of Elizabeth; Elisabeth is on the throne and fears that her cousin may find a way of reversing their positions.
Both Lucy Peacock (Mary) and Seana McKenna (Elizabeth) have distinctive voices, what in opera singers is called timbre, a certain coloration that makes them different from other performers. They both have a unique presence so that everything revolves around them when they are on stage.
Mary is intelligent, manipulative, deeply religious and murderous. Elizabeth is politically astute, wants to maintain and expand her power and must rule over men who are equally manipulative, power-hungry and sometimes treacherous.
McKenna and Peacock give signature performances.
The production succeeds because the secondary roles are also played exceptionally well.
Geraint Wyn Davies plays the treacherous, lecherous, Machiavellian and cowardly Earl of Leicester. He pretends and perhaps even believes that he is in love with Mary and is a favorite of Elizabeth. Davies gives a convincing portrait of a despicable man.
An almost unrecognizably wigged Ben Carlson is the cunning and ruthless Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth’s trusted counselor who takes it upon himself to carry out the order to execute Mary.
Ian Lake gives a notable performance as Mortimer, a Catholic fanatic who would stop at nothing for his faith. With his hair slicked back, Mortimer has the perseverance, intelligence and ruthlessness of a jihadist.
Veteran actor Brian Dennehy is given the role of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Supporting himself on a cane and shuffling around the stage, Shrewsbury (and Dennehy?) looks ancient. He tends to talk into his chest and although he finds his voice and tone when necessary, I could help wondering if the character or the actor is very, very old.
James Blendick as the jailer Paulet and Patricia Collins as Mary’s servant Hanna Kennedy deserve kudos for their performances.
The theatre-in-the-round stage of the Tom Patterson places severe limitations on the set designer. For this production, Eo Sharp is simply called the “Designer.” There is sparse and pathetic furniture in Mary’s apartment at the beginning; a dramatically lit red cross on the stage boards near the end; stage props are brought in as necessary and all is fittingly well done.
Schiller’s poetic epic was first produced in 1800 and the current production is a new version by Peter Oswald. There are numerous accents that can be attempted. Do we try to emulate how the English spoke in the 16th century or today? The play can accommodate Scottish, English and French accents with the probability of all being done badly.
Cimolino has wisely chosen to forego all attempts at different accents and lets the actors speak in reliable Southern Ontario tones. It works perfectly well and saves us from listening to incongruous tones done badly.
All trepidations about a long, poetic German play disappear as soon as the lights go on and we get an outstanding production and Cimolino and the cast a standing ovation.
Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller in a version by Peter Oswald opened on May 31 and will run in repertory until September 21, 2013 at the Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. www.stratfordfestival.ca