Thursday, 8 April 2010

Off with her head!

Mary Stuart
Circa, February 27 – April 3

In 1587 Elizabeth I of England signed the warrant that led to the death of her cousin, Mary Stuart. That much is recorded as fact; most of the rest of this three-hour intense drama is conjecture. Originally written in 1800 by Johann Christoph Fredrich von Schiller, this 2006 adaptation by David Harrower brings many of the political concerns into the contemporary climate.

Coincidentally, this show premiered at the National Theatre of Scotland, just as Black Watch had done before it came to these shores and blew audiences away at the previous New Zealand International Arts Festival. Sadly, this is not in the same class. Although the drama is good, the directing assured (Ross Jolly) and the acting fine, it is not as excellent as it needs to be to hold the attention. A lot of back-story and history is crammed into the dialogue and it needs highly-skilled practitioners to execute it well (pun entirely intended) if they are not to sound like an amateur historian at a debating society.

The times were treacherous; rumours were rife and suspicion led to death. The claustrophobic atmosphere is enhanced by a sparse set with pillars which provide peepholes to hide behind, and the edges of the stage in shadow – perfect to hatch conspiracies. The espionage, bluff and double-bluff is all conducted like a fatal game of chess where the stakes are as high as the pikes on Tower Bridge.

The play centres around the two women – Mary and Elizabeth – and pivots around an imagined meeting. Mary (Tina Retigen) is cut off from the world with no news and a Puritan guard, Sir Paulet (Nick Blake in an admirable restrained performance); ‘an honest man’ with overtones of Iago as he stands by and eavesdrops. The three central black columns and severe wooden pews that define her world are transformed through lighting (design by Ulli Briese) to a sumptuous throne or an elaborate altar as the colourscape ranges from austere light to golden glow, royal purple and blood red.

Elizabeth (Carmel McGlone) is surrounded by quarrelling men as she struggles to deal with the allegations and counter-accusations. Unsure whether to listen to her heart or her judgement, she is equally isolated. We feel her anguish as she stammers, “I don’t know what to say; I don’t know who to believe. I think you’re guilty; I hope you’re not.” The talk is of innuendo, rumour, martyrs and propaganda. Elizabeth knows that, “Public opinion will invariably side with the accused” and she feels alone: “The Pope against me; betrayed by France’s Judas kiss; and Spain wages war against me on the sea.”

The spymasters whisper in her ear and she is constantly provoked by people’s demands and entreaties. The court wants her to marry to share the burden of rule and to provide an heir to the throne, but she protests, “A ring signifies marriage and yet it is from rings that chains are made.” Robert Dudley (a wonderfully manipulative Aaron Alexander) may be her closest confidant and potential lover and yet even his questionable affections are demonstrably eleswhere. Elizabeth is finally left alone on stage in a spotlight; abandoned to her conscience and history as her judge.

While talking of imprisonment, both queens stare out longingly towards the audience – we feel that we represent freedom; we are also the jury and the electorate. Hounded to make a decision over whether Mary Stuart will live or die, Elizabeth cries, “I am my people’s slave, ruling in servitude. Is this the voice of the people? Is this the voice of all the world? What happens when they charge and condemn me?” Elizabeth is connected to the land of her people and when she beats the ground with her hands, she draws strength from it. Mary, by contrast, stamps petulantly upon it.

For one to live the other must die, and their meeting is charged with anguish. Mary kneels at Elizabeth’s feet in an outward show of passion but finds Elizabeth to be, “like a rock, harsh and unyielding”. Although she states, “I renounce all claim to this throne. Give me back my life, my liberty”, Mary taunts Elizabeth with her illegitimate birth.

The fear or Catholicism was strong and Mary makes no attempt to hide her rosary or her crucifix, “Carrying Christ in her hand as pride and lust burn in her heart.” Elizabeth worries that she is the figurehead for a French or Spanish plot to depose her, asking, “What lock can win your loyalty that cannot be unlocked by St Peter’s keys?” This was no mere theological whimsy as Elizabeth makes clear with her barbed reminder, “Your uncle taught me massacre on St Bartholomew’s Day” (when at least 10,000 French Protestants were ordered to be massacred by the Catholic mob).

A semi-circle of male advisors (well represented by different ages and characteristics) forms around them as the contretemps becomes a cat-fight with each trying to prove that she is more desirable and humiliate the other. Mary’s appeal was largely based on her looks and powers of persuasion, “Her influence on men’s minds is too strong.” She is seductive but dangerous and Elizabeth reminds her, “no one wants to be your fourth husband”.

With so few other weapons in their armoury, neither is above using her womanly wiles to get her way. Tina Retigen (as Mary Stuart) has breathing issues, often running out of breath before she finishes her sentences, and recites her lines with a self-conscious declamatory style. She says, “I can’t move so quickly from misery to hope” and it’s true that she can’t, at least not convincingly.
Carmel McGlone (as Elizabeth I) is far more natural in both speech and action. She looks the part with her regal bearing, tempestuous mood swings and expansive gestures. Elizabeth was famously proud of her fine hands and long fingers, and McGlone waves her arms like a tree in the wind or a spider in its web. When she signs the death warrant she exclaims, “The arrow has left the bow and flown to its mark” and her hands flutter through the air; elsewhere they are pressed together in supplication, prayer or applause.

Hands implicate personal responsibility and there is a touch of the Lady MacBeths about Elizabeth as she attempts to keep her royal hands free from the taint of blood, “Free from doubt, free from guilt, let the people choose.” When she gives the death warrant to Davison (Gavin Rutherford in fine form) she instructs him, “Take it with you; I have placed it in your hands; God’s business is in your trembling hands.” Aware of the weight of the document, Davison falls to his knees and the equivocation over the delivery of the death warrant adds an element of macabre comedy.

Although the drama is firmly focused on this specific moment in history, it has wide-reaching implications. The madrigal music that opens the play instantly transports us back to sixteenth-century England, while the closing bagpipes might be considered either an elegiac call or a triumphant procession. The costumes (designed by Gillie Coxhill) are a curious mix of mob caps and modern dress; capes and feathered hats are worn with double-breasted suits to show a blend of eras. Some of the gestures are also contemporary, such as the mocking bows and the flippant insincerity.

David Harrower’s adaptation is non-too subtle with lines such as “An Englishman will never show a Scotsman justice” getting a knowing laugh in performance. Mary’s argument is that the accused must be judged by a jury of equals, “And who are my equals?” This is a basic tenet of English law and Lord Burleigh (Jeff Kingsford-Brown with an unfathomable accent) notes, “For someone who claims not to be bound by English laws, you know a lot about them.” As do all renegades and underdogs.

Despite their warring factions, the countries have many similarities; “The narrow Tweed is all that separates us and often runs red with our soldiers’ blood.” The suggestion is made that these wars and conflicts will never end until the two parliaments are joined (which they were in 1707, but devolved nearly 300 years later in 1998). Occasionally the patriotic tub-thumping jars, especially when the characters talk of Britain – there was no Britain until the first Act of Union in 1707 which politically united the Kingdom of England (which included Wales) with the Kingdom of Scotland.

Perhaps the moral of the story is embodied in the words of Lord Shrewsbury (Eddie Campbell) who cautions “The most votes do not mean it is right. The present England is not the future England or the past England.” The inference is that rather than hankering back to historic insults, we should all just move on and stop reopening old wounds; a theory that has resonance in New Zealand politics also.