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Mary StuartTheater Review

by Harvey Perr

published April 24, 2009


Mary Stuart

now playing on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre

through August 16


Phyllida Lloyd, in guiding the Donmar Warehouse production of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart (in a spanking new version by Peter Oswald), has created some pretty smart and sharp-eyed imagery which almost upends what Schiller intended. For a long time, we are so involved in the machinations of the men in the play – in their very contemporary black suits and their skinny ties and their attaché cases – and relishing the good time they seem to be having plotting the fates of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots that we seem to forget the Queens themselves. A nastier commentary on men at work is not apt to be found anywhere else in a theater in our town this season. One asks oneself what they are doing in Elizabethan England in those get-ups. These are surely the same men who created the Wall Street that has collapsed around us. They get their leader – hopefully the right one – not a moment too soon. And not before they have to take a closer look at themselves. Take this reviewer’s word: object lessons run rampant.


If anything, one might ask why the Queens are not dressed in contemporary garb, as well. Well, for one thing, dressing them up in Elizabethan finery makes them a bit ornamental in relation to the men, doesn’t it? For another, these are parts written for dueling divas, and one wants them to be regal and above the fray. But, to tell the truth, as beautiful as Anthony Ward’s costumes look on the actresses, it really wouldn’t make a difference what they wore – or if they wore anything – when you have the parts being played by two of the most thrilling theatrical presences of this generation. Janet McTeer – big-boned, earthy, and absolutely gorgeous – is Mary. Harriet Walter – dark, starchy, and quietly imperious – is Elizabeth. And their only meeting is staged with the most splendid kind of theatricality. In the midst of a walloping rainstorm, in which Mary takes an intoxicating pleasure of bathing herself, a group of men in black umbrellas cross the stage and stop and turn and there, under one of the umbrellas, is Elizabeth. The two women take each other in, for one beautifully deliberate moment too long. If Schiller could have seen it, he might have been encouraged to eliminate his ensuing dialogue.


picture - Mary StuartMary, usually the more sympathetic, is, in McTeer’s worthy hands, a far more complex and edgy woman, someone who understands too well that what she needs is power, not passion, in order to make sure her Catholicism triumphs over Elizabeth’s Protestantism, and it is willfully depicted in the unceremonious way she dismisses the romantic ardor of her most devoted ally, Mortimer, as mere “passion.” Stripped of that power, she is released by death. And Elizabeth, in the suddenly vulnerable last moments that shine and dim in Walter’s eyes, is imprisoned in her life, because she knows that her victory is hardly a stable one.


The extraordinariness of these two performances is particularly striking, because, in a way, up to those final moments, it is the men who are in blissfully twisted control of the proceedings. Chandler Williams’ Byronic Mortimer, John Benjamin Hickey’s assured Earl of Leicester who loves both Queens, Nicholas Woodeson’s  shrewd Burleigh, Brian Murray’s sympathetic Earl of Shrewsbury, and Robert Stanton’s weak and easily malleable Sir William are all full-bodied interpretations. Mention, too, should be made of Maria Tucci’s robust performance as Mary’s nurse.


Schiller’s Mary Stuart has been taken down from its dusty shelves and re-invigorated into an extremely modern parable of our own times and, in the process, sends off little electric shocks of political insight, a lot of well-earned laughter, a rousing rainstorm, and some good old-fashioned acting. No mere period piece this. This is tough and juicy theater.


harveyperr @


all photos are by Joan Marcus


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