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Reviews/Theatre

Mary Stuart is a battle royal for the ages

16 February 2022

Mary Stuart, the great play Shakespeare could never write, has a flawlessly conceived and delivered staging at the Heath Ledger Theatre, writes David Zampatti.

Mary Stuart, Adapted by Kate Mulvany, after Friedrich Schiller ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, 15 February 2022 ·

Before we sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of queens, let’s dispense with the formalities. This performance of Mary Stuart is a flawlessly staged production of Kate Mulvany’s extremely clear and erudite adaptation of a canonical play by Friedrich Schiller.

With a few well-chosen deviations from the historical record, it tells of one of the most sensational and lugubrious episodes in British royal history: the imprisonment and execution of Mary Stuart, the “Queen of Scots”, on the orders of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Presented by Perth Festival and Performing Lines in association with Fremantle Theatre Company, the play is directed with impeccable precision by Melissa Cantwell. Bruce McKinven and Amalia Lambert’s design combines austere virtues with moments of inspiration, working with lighting designer Matthew Marshall. Some of the tableaux they create of Elizabeth in sumptuous silk robes and Susi Rigg’s millinery, caught in gold and silver light, are unspeakably gorgeous.

The sound design, by Georgia Snudden, incorporating music composed by Rachael Dease, is unobtrusive to the point of imperceptibility and yet adds a powerful dimension to the production’s effect.

An image from the performance Mary Stuart, pictured is the characters Mary and Elizabeth both kneeling on the floor conversing.
Actors of great power and charisma: Caroline Brazier, as Mary, and Kate Walsh, as Elizabeth. Photo: Jess Wyld

The cast is led by two well-known actors of great power and charisma, Caroline Brazier as Mary and Kate Walsh as Elizabeth. Each is a compelling presence, giving her commanding character marvellous natural life and energy.

The illustrious supporting cast of West Australian actors Humphrey Bower as the driven, sadistic Burleigh, George Shevtsov as the ageing, obliging Shrewsbury, Dalip Sondhi as Elizabeth’s suitor Leicester, and Peter Holland as Mary’s mild but unyielding jailer Paulet are a pitch-perfect pack of Poloniuses doing the often-dirty work of Elizabeth’s court.

Kyle Morrison is utterly convincing as the fervent would-be assassin Mortimer, while Raj Labade as Elizabeth’s hapless private secretary and Igor Sas as the French ambassador make the absolute most of their minor roles. Even Angelina Curtis, playing a young girl who floats around the sets for no immediately apparent reason, shows in the final scene exactly why she was cast.

There’s also a dog (Kensington “Kenzo”).

It’s a great shame that the story of Elizabeth and Mary is the play William Shakespeare could never write. When he died, in 1616, Mary’s son James I was on the thrones of both England and Scotland, and while Shakespeare was a prolific dramatiser of British royalty, the closest he got to portraying a living monarch was James’s great-uncle, Henry VIII. Shakespeare trod carefully around British royal history, and could never even contemplate telling a story so contemporary, and dangerous, especially as he might have been Catholic himself.

What would he have made of it? Certainly he would have enjoyed bringing these two towering personalities to the stage and the playing out of the great argument between them, reminiscent of the themes of his Richard II. And he would have built a memorable court around them, peopled by the sinister, the fanatic and the courageous.

An image from the performance of Mary Stuart, pictured a man stands behind a woman. They both are wearing costumes from the 1500s.
Humphrey Bower, as Lord Burleigh, is one of the ‘pitch perfect’ local cast members. He is pictured here with Caroline Brazier. Photo: Jess Wyld

The playwright who brought us some of literature’s great female characters – Rosalind, Juliet, Cleopatra – would certainly have succeeded, as Schiller and Mulvany have done, in laying out the brutal reality of a woman’s place in a world dominated by men.

But I wonder whether Shakespeare would have found heart and soul in this essentially soulless, heartless story. Could he have made us care for Mary, as she lowered her head for the axe, or for Elizabeth, as she wrestled with the awful choice she must make?

To their great credit, Schiller and Mulvany don’t even try. We are not asked to feel for these people: we are invited to be dry-eyed and impassive at the danse macabre playing out in front of us.

Mary and Elizabeth are essentially the same person, facing the same challenges and using the same powers as they attempt to achieve the same ends. Brazier and Walsh succeed completely in achieving this intricate double act.

It’s an unusual and liberating experience to be allowed such emotional distance from a play of such quality and a production this exemplary.

While Mary Stuart has a long run for a Perth Festival season, word is that houses are full or filling fast. You’d better get cracking if you’d like to sit upon the ground and hear the sad story it tells.

Mary Stuart continues at the State Theatre Centre of WA until 25 February 2022.

Pictured top: Some of the tableaux they create of Elizabeth in sumptuous silk robes and Susi Rigg’s millinery, caught in in gold and silver light, are unspeakably gorgeous. Pictured are Kate Walsh, as Elizabeth, with George Shevtsov and Dalip Sondhi. Photo: Jess Wyld

An image from the performance of Mary Stuart, pictured a woman looks into the distance arms outstretched. She is half lit, the shadows engulfing her face.
Bruce McKinven and Amalia Lambert’s design combines austere virtues with moments of inspiration, working with lighting designer Matthew Marshall. Caroline Brazier, as Mary, Photo: Jess Wyld.

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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