Friday, 31 May 2013

Peacock and McKenna shine in Mary Stuart

Mary Stuart
Stratford Festival
Written by Friedrich Schiller
In a new version by Peter Oswald
Directed by Antoni Cimolino
Tom Patterson Theatre
Playing to September 21
Running time: two hours, 47 minutes (with one interval)
Tickets: 1-800-567-1600 or online 

Review by Geoff Dale

One key element in Friedrich Schiller’s play, skillfully updated by Peter Oswald, is that the storyline is historically correct in many details, except for one intriguing “what if” scene – the meeting of Queen Elizabeth 1 and her imprisoned cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland.
While this work is clearly not the alternative history associated with present-day author Harry Turtledove (Hitler’s War) in which largely fictitious means dictate a complete reversal of the real ending, it is still the powerful and totally imagined scene between the two regal rivals that drives this play along emotional and intellectual journeys.

Equally important is that casting for Mary Stuart be without question or second thoughts. It requires top-flight performers known for flexibility of presentation, able to convey sincerity and compassion at all times through the nearly three-hour play.

Fortunately Lucy Peacock (Mary Stuart) and Seana McKenna (Elizabeth), two of the finest stage actors to be found anywhere in the theatrical world, landed the lead roles. Both exceed reasonable expectations, delivering spell-binding performances that reveal the complexities, power and even frailties of the regal cousins.

The imagined meeting of the two is simply chilling.

Peacock’s Mary Stuart is mesmerizing. As her cousin’s prisoner, she is deprived of her physical freedom but also tormented by her guilty conscience arising from her supposed role in the death of her husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

She is also at the mercy of several plots, engineered by the free-spirited Mortimer (played with delightful rage by Ian Lake) and the two-faced Earl of Leicester (portrayed with uncomfortable nastiness by Geraint Wyn Davies). Peacock is at the top of her game, delivering to the audience a conflicted soul, a misunderstood figure and clearly seen by the author as the personification of tragedy.

Yet McKenna is equally successful capturing Elizabeth’s different sides, as a strong-minded woman who is nonetheless trapped in her own metaphysical dilemma. Surrounded, seemingly on all sides, by a host of benign court sycophants and self-serving deviants, she is strangely isolated as a leader wielding ultimate power, yet still victimized by her own inner turmoil. The queen, while in control, is nevertheless a symbol of despair and at times out-of-control.

Each actress is afforded ample opportunities to demonstrate the contradictory nature of their characters and both, with the steady and masterful guidance from director Antoni Cimolino, succeed admirably.

Mary’s scenes with her handmaiden Hannah Kennedy (a gentle, touching portrait from Patricia Collins), her jailer Sir Amias Paulet (nicely underplayed with sense of honour by the always reliable James Blendick) and her confessor Melvil (Brian Tree making the necessary shift here from his usual comic persona  to drama)  are simply riveting.

Meanwhile, as she ponders her cousin’s ultimate fate in front of her royal advisors, McKenna’s stone-faced Elizabeth is electrifying. One just has to sit back and marvel as she contends with the potential consequences of executing another monarch, an unthinkable act for the times.

When she and Mary finally meet, their fictional confrontation becomes a multi-layered and glorious tour-de-force of fury-infused acting by the two leads.

Meanwhile, Brian Dennehy is a gracious, dignified and thoughtful Earl of Shrewsbury, begging his queen to act with humanity, not simply respond impulsively to the deafening screams of the crowds milling about, just outside her royal doors. He pleads with her to deal with her dilemma with caution rather than a knee-jerk reaction to unreasoned mob rage.

Blendick’s Paulet, caught perilously between two worlds, remains respectful to both queens but is nonetheless determined to honour his role as Mary’s protector as long as she lives.

Ben Carlson is an unyielding, bloodthirsty Lord Burleigh with no apparent signs of real passion or humanity– a beautifully crafted villain of the highest order. The audience is never left in doubt as to where his motivations lie, contrary to Wyn Davies’s sly vision of the slithering, ever-changing charmer Leicester.

Hats off to Peacock, McKenna, Cimolino and the full company for a ****out of 4 stars night at the theatre.

Geoff Dale is an Oxford County theatre reviewer and freelance writer/photographer. This review is also 
posted  in the Theatre Review section of The Beat Magazine 

Photo by: Don Dixon.  Pictured from left, Seana McKenna and Lucy Peacock. 

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