New York City Theater
Broadhurst Theatre (Broadway), Manhattan
Mary, Queen of Scots, and Elizabeth I of England are battling it out once more, this time on Broadway at the Broadhurst. The epic struggle, bloody though it may be, is cause for rejoicing. American audiences can now see this acclaimed British production, which played initially at London’s Donmar Warehouse and moved on to the West End.
Essentially the same production (but with added American actors), “Mary Stuart” still has its stars. Two major English actresses—Janet McTeer as the impassioned Mary and Harriet Walter as the icy, shrewd Elizabeth—were born to play these lead roles. It is a flawless study in contrasts as the ladies go at it, each in her own style. (Elizabeth will win the battle in this play, but in fact history proved Mary the victor. Her son succeeded Elizabeth, ascending the English throne as James I of England.)
The play opens with violence. A flunky comes on stage and brings an axe down on a chest with shattering results. No, not the chest of Mary’s body, but the chest which holds her belongings. It is enough to send a jolt through the audience. And so “Mary Stuart” is off and running.
The original play, written in 1800 by Friedrich Schiller, has been adapted by Peter Oswald, turning it into a pared-down version which speaks to these times. The production itself under Phillida Lloyd’s direction is hard, slick, and unforgiving. With Lloyd’s male actors lined in a row, they appear at times as fawning courtiers, at other times as a firing squad. They are in modern dress (emulating corporative executives at a board meeting), while the two Queens are in period attire. Director Phillida Lloyd’s message may be that power struggles are as contemporary as they are historic. Ruthless measures exist as much today as they did in Elizabethan times.
Yet the first act, as it plays out, tends to be talky, repetitious--a British love affair with its own verbiage. No matter. One still watches a radiant McTeer, as she moves through a range of emotions.
The second act proves to be far more interesting, in terms of story, with its plots, counterplots, lusts and betrayals. And again, Lloyd comes on with a strong opening. The summer rains pour down, and McTeer cavorts about the stage, drenched to the skin. It is a glorious paean to life itself, a grand gesture in the face of impending death.
Walter, as Elizabeth, has a more thankless role. She is called upon to be shrewd, secretive, calculating, a role which she handles admirably. She forces one to root for Mary (but all to no avail). Others in the supporting cast are first-rate, smoothly integrated into the action. And praise, too, goes to Anthony Ward’s set, Hugh Vanstone’s lighting Paul Arditti’s sound design, and, above all, William Elliot’s rainstorm—all conspiring to create a jolting, high-powered drama.
In short, a top-notch importation. We must give thanks for the continuing cultural exchanges between our two countries.
-- Irene Backalenick
April 25, 2009