The History Girls
Theatre editor Steve Cramer reviews Mary Stuart, the latest production by the NTS, and finds mixed blessings in its engagement with politics, past and present.
There are a few moments in history where complex disseminations must be made about the personal and the political, where the particular personality of an individual might actually influence events which would otherwise chug along under their own mighty ideological impetus. This is perhaps why we are so fascinated by the title character of Schiller’s classic and her adversary and gaoler Queen Elizabeth. Each, in their way were personally influential on their time. If ideological and genealogical happenstance created the conditions under which these two surfers on history’s wave took the tide with them, they were nevertheless proactive and influential through their characters alone. What better subject for Schiller, whose interest in the intersections of personal passion and social responsibility needn’t be documented here?
Vicky Featherstone’s production of David Harrower’s version of this classic for the NTS manages to tick a lot of the boxes in the complex list of requirements the play demands, but some of the blanks tell against it. In it, we meet the imprisoned Mary (Catherine Cusack) awaiting her fate as Elizabeth (Siobhan Redmond) ponders her next move, hectored on one side by the zealously Protestant Burleigh (John Stahl) who wants Mary dead, but soon, and Leicester (Phil McKee) on the other, who counsels moderation for his own darkly pragmatic purposes. Meanwhile, the young Catholic neophite Mortimer plots Mary’s escape. It’s all decided on a brief, and very personal interchange in this apocryphal but compelling version of history.
The old curmudgeon who muttered bitterly about “talk, talk, talk” behind me as I left the Citz seemed to have expected Schiller to be transposed into Bob Fosse. Yes it is talky, and rightly so. In fact, Featherstone does a pretty good job of pacing her story, longish as it is. But she isn’t helped by Harrower’s script, which drains the piece of poetic intensity at times, leaving a rather banal and prosy chit chat in its place. In this sense, perhaps the old codger had a point. The towering grey prison walls that designer Neil Featherstone places around the characters also seems to add to the monotony, though the costuming of the male characters in the suits of contemporary politicians, while Mary and Elizabeth remain in historical costume creates a striking juxtaposition.
Redmond makes for a robust and believable Elizabeth, but Cusack, whose role is perhaps even more complex, didn’t feel quite in the space on the night. The patriarchy may have changed to allow women to be boisterously passionate or politically commanding, but even today it seldom allows both to exist in the same person. It’s tough for an actress to create this duality, and Cusack seemed a little timid in response. There’s a good performance from Laing, though here the character, who seems to parallel a modern religious fundamentalist, lacks scrupulous examination. The idea that such folk behave as they do out of pure sexual repression is to oversimplify contemporary politics unendurably. A problem not of this production’s making though, is the structure, where we are left far too long with Elizabeth after Mary’s demise for a Scottish audience to feel comfortable with. Yet here, Featherstone shows enough guile to bring some power into the anticlimax, with McKee and Stahl acting their socks off to splendid effect and Redmond rising to a mighty emotional crescendo that makes the night worth its length.
Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until Sat 21 Oct, then touring 3 stars