22 June 2009

'Mary Stuart'

My friend Helen, who lives in Tel Aviv, and I went up to the Broadhurst Theatre on the evening of Wednesday, 17 June, to catch Mary Stuart, the new translation of the 1800 Schiller classic produced in 2005 at the Donmar Warehouse and in the West End in London (to great acclaim, I must add--which, of course, it why it came here in the first place). I can easily see why it got all that attention and praise, too. The translation, by Peter Oswald, a playwright of some accomplishment in his own right, is excellent: eminently actable, contemporary without being anachronistic, forceful, clear. It isn't verse, however, which I assume was a deliberate choice of either Oswald's or the Donmar leadership’s. (The program doesn't say that the script was commissioned, but I assume it was.) Schiller, of course, is the German Shakespeare in a sense, but Oswald's prose is elegant and worthy of the historic figures Schiller portrays in his play even though it lacks the flight of poetry.

I'll assume that all of you know the basic plot of Mary Stuart, so I'll dispense with a summary except to remind you all that it centers on a meeting of the two cousins, both queens who each has a claim to the English throne that is supported by many and powerful people. Mary, famously, is Catholic and would return the county to that faith; Elizabeth is Protestant and intends to preserve England in the faith founded by her father, Henry VIII. Mary is under house arrest in Fotheringhay Castle where she has been stripped of all her royal prerogatives and accouterments. I will let you all look up the history that put Mary in Elizabeth's hands this way, but I will note that the charges were treason stemming from several attempts on Elizabeth's life for which Mary was held responsible. The year is 1587, the last year of Mary's life. (For the record, though I'm sure you all already know this, Mary and Elizabeth never actually met; Schiller invented the meeting for dramatic purposes--highly dramatic, I might add.)

There are lots of juicy parts in Mary Stuart, and the largely American supporting cast handles them very well. From Maria Tucci, who plays Hanna Kennedy, Mary's sole waiting woman (and the only other female character on stage aside from the two queens), to the courtiers, nobles, and royal retainers in Elizabeth's court, every actor carves out a character that is not only appropriate to the role but consistent, strong, and credible in the circumstances. I couldn't detect any dialect problems (the cast all matched the British accents of the two leads), for which feat credit must be accorded dialect coaches Kate Wilson and Erika Bailey as well as director Phyllida Lloyd (whose best-known previous achievements were the stage and film versions of Mamma Mia!--not what you'd call adequate prep for this task). As theater people all know, casting is half the battle when it comes to eliciting good performances from an ensemble, and that's even more the case when the show is a real challenge, whether classical or contemporary, and the featured players are all stage (and Broadway) vets of some accomplishment and rep. (The company includes, among others, Michael Countryman, the actor I saw in a recent production of Donald Margulies's Shipwrecked! who is a long-time favorite of mine. He didn't disappoint me.)

Of course, as everyone who's seen a newspaper that covers theater must know, the draw here isn't Schiller or the play or even the characters, but the performances of two top (British) actresses in the lead roles, the rival queens of 16th-century Britain. The cool, steady, almost bloodless Harriet Walter is Elizabeth I; opposite her (in more ways than one) is a passionate, tempestuous, emotional Janet McTeer as Mary, Queen of Scots. Possibly not since Glenda Jackson and Vanessa Redgrave faced each other on screen in the same roles (but a different vehicle) have two so-perfectly matched actors been so perfectly cast. (Of course, since the two never met in history, only in Schiller's play does this extraordinary dramatic pairing come to fruition. It's the only vehicle--not counting the opera Maria Stuarda which Donizetti adapted from Schiller's play--in which the Stuart and Tudor queens have a scene together. That sort of makes Mary Stuart a set up for a 19th-century cat fight!)

In a way, you could look on Mary Stuart as a kind of theatrical/dramatic/verbal boxing match. Or maybe, better, a fight movie. All the other characters are the promoters, touts, sidemen, trainers, managers, and so on. They orbit the two fighters doing whatever it is they have to to set the fight up and get the boxers ready to mix it up in the ring. The boxers shadowbox, punch the bag, jump rope, do road work, and go through all the prep a Rocky Graziano goes through in Somebody Up There Likes Me, maybe. (Feel free to fill in your own fight flick--they all work.) Then the two fighters meet in the ring, and the movie comes to a huge climax, usually after a blow-by-blow depiction of a cosmic bout. Well, that's what Schiller did--without the blood, sweat, or tears. (Well, okay, there are tears--but the blood comes later and off stage.) Elizabeth/Walter meets Mary/McTeer in the courtyard of Fotheringhay in a driving rain (courtesy of set designer Anthony Ward and the water effects creators at Showman Fabrications and Water Sculptures). And a grand battle it is, too. Elizabeth is cool, almost cold-blooded, steely, controlled--only she is untouched by the pouring rain--and Mary is hot-tempered, mercurial, pleading, demanding--and soaking wet, like a drenched cat, because she reveled in the rain when it started to fall before Elizabeth’s arrived. And like all dramatic contests between two matched fighters, the bout ends in a sort of draw: Mary explodes at Elizabeth, destroying any chance she has for eliciting mercy and freedom; but Elizabeth is cowed by Mary's powerful spirit and knows that she has been bested before her courtiers. (In essence, it is because Elizabeth, the female king who rules over men, has been so humiliated before the male subordinates of her court that she ultimately realizes she must sign Mary's death warrant. There is a strong element of the battle of the sexes inherent in Schiller's play, especially in Oswald's translation. I'll get to that bit later.)

It is in this scene, the dramatic raison d'ĂȘtre for Schiller's play, that the reason we need actors like McTeer and Walter becomes obvious. The reason we have to put them on stage in roles like Elizabeth and Mary every now and then (as often as we can, really) and show them off to the world. It shows us what it's supposed to look (and sound) like when it's done right. (I used to keep a little mental list of the greatest individual performances I'd seen. James Earle Jones's Jack Jefferson in Great White Hope is on the list, and Alec McCowan as Frederick William Rolfe in Hadrian VII, and Virginia Capers as Lena Younger in Raisin, among a few others. This pair would probably have made the list.) As far as an evening in the theater, this scene is worth the whole ticket price, no question. (Dramatically, it is the embodiment of the whole play: it not only displays the competing central characters at their clearest, most unguarded, but it lays out the theme of the drama and is the climax of the production. Just like the main bout in that boxing movie--except with words).

Damn. That was something to behold.

Now, let me sneak in a word or two about some of the tech. The set, designed, as I noted, by Anthony Ward, is about as spare as I've ever seen in a classic play. (I saw a Hamlet at the old ATL, when it was housed in a former railroad station, that was performed on construction scaffolding. That comes pretty close, I think, but it's still more elaborate than this Mary Stuart. It was, though, lit by house lights and flashlights--but that was an accident!) The walls of the set, which encompassed both Elizabeth's court and Fotheringhay Castle, are rough, black-painted brick. I think it's literally the back wall of the stage and whatever bare structural elements holds up the theater's ceiling in the wings. The proscenium arch is also black brick, and I presume that's artificial to coordinate with the "natural" back wall. Along that back wall is a dark-stained, simple wooden bench, attached to the wall itself (that is, no legs--like a ledge). Otherwise there are only occasional tables or chairs brought on and off. The image I got from this rough, plain, black playing area is that both Mary's confinement and Elizabeth's royal court are prisons. Even when Elizabeth wins the mortal combat (am I spoiling the play by saying that?), she's still a prisoner herself. Mary, in a sense, has been released from her confinement--to meet her God. (One plot element is that Elizabeth, the unforgiving Protestant monarch, denies Mary a Catholic priest to hear her confession and tend to her spiritual last needs. One of Mary's supporters, however, has had himself secretly ordained so he can give her the sacraments of her faith, and she is prepared to meet her death with a peaceful soul.)

The costumes, which were reportedly designed with budgetary considerations in mind, have a metaphorical aspect nonetheless. (I know how that works! You understand that there's no way in budgetary hell you can do what you really want to do, so you look around and find what you can manage, then devise an artistic explanation for what was originally an economic necessity. Sometimes it works great. I once directed a school production of The Skin of Our Teeth for which all the costumes had to be pulled from stock. Henry appears in act three after returning form the war, and I knew we couldn't put together a complete uniform that was all from the same period. So we pulled a jacket from one war, pants from another, a helmet from a third--and voilĂ : our Henry had been a soldier not in a war, but all wars. It was perfect. As a TD I knew in college used to like to say, "Necessity is a mother . . . .") What Ward (who did the costumers, too) did in Mary Stuart was dress all the men in 21st-century suits (all black, natch), and only the women wore period dresses. It took me a while to figure out what that could mean (aside, of course, from a low budget), but it has to do with Elizabeth I having been the first female monarch to rule England in her own name. (Historically, there was a brief reign of Queen Maud in the 12th century, but I doubt anyone in 16th-century England would have remembered her, or recognized her precedent.) Men were meant to be ruled by men; Elizabeth, called a female king several times in the play, was an aberration and she needed to keep reminding her courtiers that she was their monarch, their ruler . . . their superior. The oversized skirts of the Elizabethan gowns in contrast to the simpler silhouette of the 21st-century modern man's suit highlight the fact that the ones doing the bowing are wearing pants while the one being bowed to is wearing a dress. (As I said to Helen when she asked what I thought of this costuming choice, I'd probably have put Hanna Kennedy in modern dress, too, along with the men and leave only the two queens in billowing gowns. It's not a big point, though.)

One additional costume note: though almost all the costumes are basically black--the men's suits are nearly all black; there's some gold patterns or trim in Elizabeth's gown--when Mary removes her rude cloak to meet her executioner at the end of the play, she is revealed to be wearing a wine-red silk dress--the only real color in the whole play. (I understand that this is a historical fact and that red is the color of martyrs in Mary's Catholic iconography. But I don't respond to any of that, since I'm not up on all the minutiae of English history and I'm not Catholic. What I do respond to is theatricality, and a major female character in a play who wears the only color on the set definitely hits me upside the head. Red is also the color of passion!)

Now, the problem. I spent all the report of Mary Stuart on the meeting scene for one reason. It's the only truly theatrical moment in the play. The rest of the play is all talk. The words are terrific, and the actors speak them wonderfully--I can't fault either Oswald or the cast or Lloyd. It's Schiller. Mary Stuart is a 19th-century play (because it came out in 1800, one toke over the line), and it has clear elements of the rising 19th-century Romanticism that would dominate the first two-thirds of the century (until Realism and Naturalism came along in the 1870s), but it's also a throw-back to the 18th century and Neoclassicism. Violent action, any action, really, takes place off stage. After the dramatic meeting between Mary and Elizabeth, Elizabeth is attacked in an assassination attempt on the road back to London. The attack is thwarted and the assailant is captured due to the bravery of the elderly Earl of Shrewsbury . . . but we never get to see any of this derring-do! In Shakespeare, there'd be a choreographed fight (which a director would make more or less of, depending on her proclivities), but Lloyd has no choice here, as Schiller only sends back a messenger to describe what happened. The entire first act of the production is laying the groundwork for the fatal meeting as the two sides manipulate and scheme. But that's all words, words, words. The Declaration of Independence is a magnificent, stirring document, but it isn't theatrical. So, as much as I might hate to say this, as good as the elements of the production of Mary Stuart are--the acting, directing, set design, translation--it ended up being mostly enervating, except for one electrifying moment. Is that fair? I dunno, but it's true. For me, anyway. (I will acknowledge that Helen didn't feel this way. She thought the performance was as great as all the reviews said it was. The audience gave the company a standing ovation at the curtain call--but, then, audiences today stand for every performance so I don't consider that a valid indicator.)

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