Friday, 13 April 2018

REVIEW: Mary Stuart at Theatre Royal Bath

After a successful run in the West End, Mary Stuart is now on a short tour of Bath, Cambridge and Manchester giving regional audiences a chance to see this fascinating play. Having enjoyed it at The Duke of York , it was great to catch up with the production 12 weeks later in the magnificent New Theatre Royal in Bath.

The play deals with the threat to the rule of the tolerant Protestant Queen Elizabeth from her first cousin the Catholic Queen of Scots which results in her imprisonment for 19 years while the courts of England and France plot and counter plot. It was written by the German playwright and philosopher Frederich Schiller in 1800, over 200 years after the events it depicts and clearly sympathises with Mary. Robert Icke's masterstroke is to take this tale and present it in modern dress with TV's, syringes and a digital clock to give it a freshness that both strips the original story back to it core, the challenges faced by these two women and their positions in the society of the day and points clearly to the parallels in the politics of today with the threats posed by opposing religious ideologies. At the same time it draws out the weight of responsibility on leaders for critical decisions, their difficulties of knowing who to trust despite their power and the emotional conflict that their position can create with their personal life.

The strength of the production is dependent on the two central characters played by Lia Williams (who was so wonderful in The Oresteia) and Juliet Stevenson (the multi nominated classical actress). The coin spin to select who plays which Queen is not only a neat theatrical devise to add spice to the evening but also a metaphor for those critical moments in history that turn on a simple choice by the leader of the day. Disappointing the coin fell the same way as in my first visit, so I saw Lia Williams again as Elizabeth who once again skilfully portrays the burden of authority that weighs on the Queen and gradually moulds her into the iconic figure that we have grown up knowing as the Virgin Queen. She at least gets the first act off stage to prepare herself, while Juliet Stevenson is immediately stripped of her velvet jacket and shoes and thrust into her confinement where her royal status and strong religious beliefs are challenged by the rule of English law. Her call to be judged by her peers rather than the council of forty two who write the laws of the land is a rather dry scene setting debate and the play does plod along for the first two of five acts, with some of the courtiers gabbling their lines in an apparent rush to get through. 

However from Act 3 the play explodes with emotion and tension when the two queens meet and Mary lets loose and builds to a dramatic and telling finale. In her serene and regal preparation for her execution, Stevenson's Mary wins our hearts while William's Elizabeth wins our sympathy as we see her stranded centre stage in isolation as the Queen.

There are changes in the staging from London with the court entering from the wings rather than the auditorium which had looked so odd in the West End but otherwise the regional audiences are treated to the full West End cast with Michael Byrne as Talbot and Elliot Levey as Burleigh the two stand out supporting actors. Robert Icke adaption and direction is inventive and exciting and the commanding performances by Stevenson and Williams make for another coup de theatre.

Review by Nick Wayne 

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Royal Circle, Row E | Price of Ticket: £40
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