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Mary Stuart review at the Almeida Theatre, London – ‘two fine, fierce performances’

Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson in Mary Stuart at the Almeida Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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The Almeida’s big hit, King Charles III, vividly imagined a constitutional crisis that could follow the death of our current monarch. The theatre now rewinds to a very different royal crisis from over five hundred years ago, magnificently dramatised in Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart.

This astonishing political thriller premiered in 1800 but Robert Icke’s stark, intense and riveting production brings it into the here and now. Two women – Protestant Elizabeth I on the English throne and Catholic Mary Queen of Scotland, who fled to England after she was imprisoned by the Scottish nobility only to be incarcerated again by her cousin Elizabeth I for fear that she would usurp her place on the throne – face off against each other in a deadly power struggle.

When the play was last seen in the West End at the Donmar Warehouse in 2005,  Janet McTeer played the title role opposite Harriet Walter as Elizabeth I. Now, in an act of extraordinary daring and courage, Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson arrive on stage together not knowing which role they will be assigned, until a spin of a coin decides it for them.

That gives the performance a real frisson, but also underlines both the chance of random fate (the accident of birth as well as the associations and alliances they both forge), and that the women are two sides of the same coin. Only on certain days are the alternative combination guaranteed to be played with the actors swapping roles in the evening after the matinee is decided by chance, so I saw both actors chillingly play each role.

While only theatre geeks and freaks might feel they need to experience both versions, seeing them on the same day amplified my understanding both of the play and the actors’ extraordinary achievements.

Stevenson is tougher, more naturally regal, in both roles, but she will be damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t in either guise. There’s no winning this deadly battle: she’s a prisoner in both, inhabiting either a prison cell that leads to her beheading as Mary or a “prison cell with jewels” as the English monarch. Williams offers a more tentative, vulnerable and troubled Elizabeth I, yet also a fierce independence of spirit as Mary that leads to a doomed stand-off in the other combination.

Robert Icke’s own new version of the play pulses with contemporary nuance (as did his Oresteia), and is staged with a dramatic sweep and urgency on Hildegard Bechtler’s revolving disc of a stage that adds another brick wall in front of the Almeida’s existing one.

The two women completely own the space but this is also a rich ensemble show, with superb support all around including Rudi Dharmalingam as Mary’s ally Mortimer, Vincent Franklin as her persecutor Burleigh and John Light as Leicester, romantically entangled with both women.

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Chilling, thrilling production with two fine, fierce actors alternating in the leads