- Fiona Prior
An adaptation by Kate Mulvany, after Friedrich Schiller
Sydney Theatre Company
Image(s): Queen Elizabeth I (c1575), unknown artist and Mary Queen of Scots (c 1580), by Francois Clouet
I love a recent trend in the adaptions done by Sydney Theatre Company. In the instance of ‘Mary Stuart’, Kate Mulvany (adaptor) has taken the 19th Century play by Friedrich Schiller, reframed it from a 21st century women’s perspective but kept the courtly drama well and truly in the 16th Century. This ‘gap’ in point-of-view of women in so many of our historic cultural artefacts – possibly because women were not deemed to have a point of view even by themselves – is all the more obvious to a 21st century audience when the plays very reason for existence are the two famous women at its core. Enter Mary Stuart played by Caroline Brazier and Queen Elizabeth I played by Helen Thomson.
Of course, no playwright can give a true conversational exchange between characters. Ostensibly, their job is to place words that would/could/should have come from their characters’ mouths. Mulvany takes just a little more poetic licence by giving her female characters in ‘Mary Stuart’ a modern sensibility.
In their respective plays, both Schiller and Mulvany have leapt over historic fact and brought our two queens Elizabeth and Mary not only to life but also together on stage – even though they apparently never met. Inconsistent with fact, we find the two queens sharing the stage after a drunken court party, never quite sure if it is a drunken dream of Elizabeth I, or if Mary’s young jailer has allowed the imprisoned women out of her cell to plead her case for liberty.
They exchange small talk and intimacies, and we quickly learn that both women are frustrated by the limits of their lives. Both women know that their positions in life are precarious. Both women are furious that men have placed them in positions that threaten each other’s sovereignty. Both women are aware that they are but pawns in a much more complex game of international courtly intrigue … and both women hate their respective jails; Mary spending 19 years in her brick and mortar prison while Elizabeth is caught in a political cell woven round her by scheming stakeholders.
A devout Catholic, a Scottish Court as home, a French Court as home, a conspirator to murder (maybe) and a rape victim…. Mary’s past was a roller coaster of brutal power plays. When Mary finally does throw herself at Queen Elizabeth’s mercy it is easier for Elizabeth to lock her away for almost two decades and ignore her than to find a clean resolution. Late in the play the two red-headed actors actually swap roles for a period, further emphasising the shared vulnerability and empathy of the two queens.
Eventually Elizabeth will sign Mary’s death warrant, knowing that by agreeing to have a queen killed she is setting a precedent that could also end in her own demise.
Directed by Lee Lewis with costume design by Mel Page and set design by Elizabeth Gadsby, no theatre element takes away from the tense, life and death drama being played out on stage.
“With Queen executing queen, the belief in the divine right of sovereigns to rule has been challenged, and will never again be taken for granted.
Mary Stuart played at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney.