Reviews London TheatreReviewsWest End & Central Published 2 February 2018

Review: Mary Stuart at Duke of York’s Theatre

January 13 - March 31

This is sounding like a history lesson: Rob Icke’s Almeida production offers contemporary parallels galore.

William Drew
Mary Stuart, Duke of York's Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Mary Stuart, Duke of York’s Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

So how was it?

Oh, I hate that question. Ask me another.

Okay, who was who?

Lia Williams was Mary. She called it. Heads.

And it was tails?


Gutted. Are they really doing it though? Isn’t it rigged?

It’s possible, yeah, but they have a live feed of the coin being flipped and it shows you both sides, you know, like magicians do.

Oh, are there screens up everywhere like in his other productions?

How did you guess?

Just a hunch. And have they made the Duke of York’s look a bit like the Almeida with lots of bare brick and stuff?

Again, bang on.

Go me. So who actually flips it?

John Light. He plays Leicester. So that kind of makes sense when the play gets going.

Okay, cool.  And how do they decide who calls it? It’s not like either of them are the home side.

No, they must alternate. Anyway, Lia Williams was Mary so Juliet Stevenson was Elizabeth.

Mary’s the one who gets her head chopped off, right? Sorry, spoilers.

Yeah, she does. And I suppose most people know that and Schiller builds his plot on the assumption that it’s not about “is she going to get beheaded?” but “why is she going to get beheaded?”

Because she was a threat to Elizabeth and a Catholic. That’s easy!

Well on the surface, yeah. It seems straightforward. But that doesn’t look so great for Elizabeth. To kill someone who’s a threat to her throne. Makes her look like a despot and killing Catholics wasn’t a great idea either if she wanted to remain at peace with France and there were still a lot of Catholics in England. The thing is, she’d been in Mary Stuart’s situation herself because her half-sister Mary Tudor, who was a Catholic, had her imprisoned for a year for supporting Protestant rebels. Also, Elizabeth’s mother was Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded and the marriage between her and Henry VIII was annulled, which thus meant that she was considered a bastard, by some. So there was an argument that Mary Stuart actually had a clearer claim to the throne of England than anyone alive…

Woah, woah, woah. This is sounding like a history lesson.

Oh yeah, you don’t really need to know any of this. Icke’s cut the play down to three hours and the history you’re given as backstory is really on a need to know basis.

So I don’t have to read up before I go?

No, it’s a bit like a lot of older plays where you have a first scene between two relatively minor characters that’s just lots of thinly veiled exposition and then in the next scene the main characters arrive and it really gets going.

Okay, so I won’t let the first scene put me off.  Is it all political intrigue and dodgy dealings then?

Pretty much, yeah.

A bit like The Tudors?

Hmmm, a little bit. There’s less sex and more psychological complexity but there’s definitely an awareness to it that you could be at home watching a box set so this needs to be just as gripping.

Hence all the TVs.

Yeah, and there’s a lot of characters getting really really close to other characters’ faces.

Oh, like in American daytime soaps?

Quite like that, yeah. Like The Bold and the Beautiful.

I love that. There needs to be more of that. Do they remember all their lines?

Yeah, they do. It’s pretty astonishing. So much so that you do start to wonder if it’s rigged. Like, while I was watching it, I kept thinking that it seemed inevitable that Stevenson would be Elizabeth and Williams would be Mary. They seemed perfect for those roles and imagining it the other way round just felt weird.

That’s like history, though, isn’t it?

Go on…

Well it seems inevitable that the Allies won the Second World War, that the Titanic sank, that the USSR disintegrated. But they didn’t seem inevitable at the time. Often they felt impossible, black swans. Like Leicester winning the Premier League, Trump, Brexit.

I see what you mean. Yeah, that makes sense. The Brexit thing is interesting here actually.

Oh yeah?

Well, the connections aren’t hammered home, which is the right decision, I think. They’re just there in the play really. First of all, it’s a play written by a German born into something called the Holy Roman Empire.

Wasn’t Holy, wasn’t Roman and wasn’t an Empire?

That’s the one. The action’s all about the repercussions of Henry VIII’s decision to separate the English Church from Rome in 1534.

So, that was the first Brexit?

In a way, I suppose. I mean there are parallels.

But Scotland didn’t want to come along?

Well no, they remained Catholic. Some of them anyway. There’s a lot of Elizabeth fluctuating between wanting an alliance at one moment, then changing her mind and wanting to go it alone the next.

An alliance with who?

With France.

Oh, so a unilateral one?


But they’re Catholic.

That’s right. So that’s quite tense. And then later on… there’s… actually this might be going into spoilers.

I already know she gets her head cut off.

Not that. There are certain events that lead up to that.  Let’s just say that there is an event that suddenly means that the public starts baying for Mary Stuart’s blood. Nothing she has actually done but something that people connect with people like her (in this case, Catholics).

Right, and that changes things?

Yeah, because it suddenly goes from a theoretical argument about what the right thing to do is – have her cousin killed or not – to the pressure to be responsive to the public.

Like a democracy?

Yeah, well there was no democracy but the implication seems to be that if the Queen doesn’t do what the public wants, there could be a revolution. Elizabeth complains that all she ever does is try to please the people. And certain characters make an argument that the public can’t always be listened to, that sometimes they are wrong and it’s her responsibility as leader to make that call.

Shit. That’s a lot to put on her.

That’s what she thinks.

So what does she do?

She… well… you’ll have to go and see.

Sounds like I will.  Happy you won the coin toss then?

I am actually. Although…


Just thought it might be nice if we went to the theatre together sometime.

I prefer doing it like this.


Mary Stuart is at the Duke Of York’s Theatre until March 31st. For more details, click here.


William Drew

William Drew is a writer, narrative designer and dramaturg based in Brighton. He makes work at the intersection between live performance and gaming as Venice as a Dolphin and a Coney Associate. He is Associate Dramaturg of New Perspectives in Nottingham. He spent several years working in the Royal Court Theatre’s International and Literary Departments and has been a script reader for the National Theatre, Hampstead and Traverse Theatres. You can find out more about his work here:

Review: Mary Stuart at Duke of York’s Theatre Show Info

Directed by Rob Icke

Written by Friedrich Schiller

Cast includes Juliet Stevenson, Lia Williams, John Light, Eliot Levey, Rudi Dharmalingam, Christopher Colouhoun. Carmen Munroe, Michael Byrne. David Jonsson Fray



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