The British pop-culture landscape is dominated by kings and queens, from Henry VIII in Wolf Hall to Elizabeth II in The Crown, so the time is ripe for a revival of this lyrical tale of political intrigue and regicide.
Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams are Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart, with a coin-toss deciding which Queen each will play. This is more than a gimmick – it represents the tiny sliver of light between these two women, whose circumstances could so easily have been reversed. Identically clad in androgynous white shirts and black trousers, the royal court gathers to watch the coin fall, bowing low to the winner (Stevenson when I attended) and stripping the loser of her jacket and shoes.
Frederick Schiller’s play was written in the dying days of the 18th century, but this reworking shows no signs of age. It isn’t a history so much as a rollicking political drama (the meeting between the two that lies at its heart is fictitious).
The Machiavellian workings of the royal court are given the rhythmic momentum of The West Wing’s “walk-and-talks”. It punchily debates the role of women in positions of power, how religion can be used to incite hatred (with lots of talk of “cells” and “networks” of religious extremists, albeit Catholic rather than Islamic), and, most of all, the fickleness of public opinion. Elizabeth’s withering “A majority does not prove a thing is right” sounds like the mantra of the so-called liberal elite, with Stuart’s death warrant becoming an analogue for Article 50, a hopeless Catch-22 whereby the Queen is damned if she signs it and damned if she doesn’t.
Shiller’s prose is marbled with a deliciously dry wit, and lines like “There is no prince in Europe I would less reluctantly surrender to” are laugh-out-loud moments.
But it’s the tension that will stay with you; between Elizabeth and her court, between Stuart and her jailers, but mostly between the women themselves. Stevenson is imperious as the virgin Queen, at once forceful and fragile, while Williamson is pixieish in her charms but unwavering in her belief in her divine right to rule. It’s a testament to their performances that I can’t imagine either in the opposite role; this production is strong enough to justify a second or third outing until you have seen both versions.