Friedrich Schiller’s 1800 play presents the knotty, convoluted story of Mary Queen of Scots’ tragic demise with almost Brechtian intent- to educate and elucidate. Though a slow-burner at first, as the political machinations are put in place, the pace soon quickens and the drama turns out to be a heated, compelling tale- as well as possibly filling in the gaps of a shoddy knowledge of English history.
Performed by Faction Theatre, as part of a repertory season that also includes Twelfth Night and Strindberg’s Miss Julie, the production features incredibly solid work from the ensemble. The morally courageous Talbot, Mary’s former jailer, is played with depth and nobility by Andrew Chevalier, while Gareth Fordred makes a vivid and idiosyncratic Leicester; Mortimer, meanwhile, is played with fanatic naiveté by Tom Radford. But, good as they all are, the evening belongs to the two feuding queens. Elizabeth, played by Kate Sawyer, is wholly convincing in all her mercurial spite, fear and vulnerability; torn as she was by a million advisors, all with their own personal stake in her situation, Schiller portrays Elizabeth’s dilemma as an almost impossible one, while making her decision to kill as inevitable as it was immoral.
In contrast Derval Mellett plays Mary Stuart as a purer queen, rarefied by her own innocence. Rather than a flatly sketched caricature, Mellett draws a powerfully defined woman with the capacity to erupt, showing the venom of her indignation. As a result of their differing approaches, the scene in which the two queens meet practically crackles with dangerous energy.
Projections have become commonplace so it was refreshing to see such imaginative, apposite use of this visual device for a change: each image existed to aid clarity, rather than just provide decoration. The performance space itself was entirely blank, leaving the able performers to carry the imagined weight of setting and atmosphere. Shy of overloading the space with theatrical gimmicks, director Mark Leipacher saved the cleverest and most moving trick for the final death scene, a stunning and simple moment of theatre that it would be wrong of me to give away.
This new version of Schiller’s original, by Leipacher and Daniel Millar, is ripe with pithy phrases, most poignantly felt when casually delivered. Not everything in the production works: a disco-interlude featuring Enron-style choreography misfires and the use of inconsistently stylised costumes proved distracting, but there were flashes of undoubted brilliance from Leipacher and his cast, particularly in the startling, artful suicide scene. It will be interesting to see where both he and the company go next.
The basic premise might be a familiar one, an innocent woman wronged, but the way in which the company respond to the text feels fresh and inventive and their portrayal of a multi-faceted Elizabeth and of Mary’s own duplicity make this production of a two-hundred-year-old play a fascinating experience.
Read the Exeunt review of Faction Theatre’s Twelfth Night.
Read the Exeunt interview with Faction Theatre on reclaiming the repertory system.