Schiller’s Mary Stuart is probably his most popular play outside Germany – maybe because the theme is so dear to English and the royal characters such a treat for actresses. In any case, this is a play that would resent the Regietheater treatment more immediately than others because of the instantly recognisable historical characters. In this sense, it was most fortunate that I was able to catch the Donmar Warehouse’s 2005 production directed by Phyllida Lloyd currently on Broadway.
Those who know this theatre in London will more easily understand the sort of simplification disguised as stylization adopted to make possible the staging of a complex play in a small theatre. On Broadway, it could suggest only limited budget. One only set is adopted – a bare brick-walled stage with just a couple of props (or a real-water rain on stage for the scene in the Fotheringhay Castle garden) to suggest the shift from Mary’s cell to Elizabeth’s court and other nearby facilities. Although men are dressed in contemporary suits, women’s costumes have a historical touch. This balance between respecting tradition and pleasing contemporary tastes lies in fact in the core of this production: Peter Oswald’s version of Schiller’s text is very fluent, easy on the ear and a more up-to-date vocabulary; the acting style is more energetic and less formal (but not iconoclastic) and many a line is given an ironic twist instead of taken with face value.
The statuesque Janet McTeer makes great use of this approach, making of Mary something like a modern-like passionate woman who is ready to reconcile private and public affairs. Schiller gives her many lines in which she speaks rather to herself than to the other characters on stage, and McTeer takes the opportunity to exemplify this difficult balance she is desperately trying to achieve. Although Harriet Walter’s Elizabeth is more conventional, it is no less beautifully crafted. She is an actress of extraordinary control of stage gestures and crystal-clear diction. They are competently partnered by a great group of actors, especially Maria Tucci, Chandler Williams and Nicholas Woodeson.