If I needed to summarise everything about Mary Stuart in one word – the direction, script, performance and design – I think the best word would be unexpected.
In the somewhat pricey program (aren’t the seats expensive enough?), Adapter Kate Mulvaney advises one to ‘leave any preconceptions you had about Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots at the door’; very wise words indeed. If you don’t, as was my case, the ensuing 2 hours is rather, well, tumultuous. Her adaptation presents far more realistic and relatable caricatures of royalty and nobility than what I had anticipated going in, which forces one to very quickly rethink how these figures actually interacted with one other. It’s both unnerving and somehow endearing to hear Queen Elizabeth (Helen Thomson) constantly scream ‘fuck off’ to her court, or to have to sit through the disgraced Mary Stuart’s (Caroline Brazer) salacious banter with jailor Paulet (Simon Burke). It ultimately presents a challenge to us (and to the actors) to see all sides of each character’s personalities, a challenge that takes some time to accept but is essentially forced down our throats due to the script’s contemporary nature.
After the first 20 minutes, luckily, we become used to it. Brazer as the title character begins the performance in a little bit of an awkward state, with the audience unsure exactly how to react to her playful-but-deeply-hurting state that was exacerbated by the all-projection-no-emotion performance by Fayssal Bazzi (as Catholic rebel Mortimer). Yet, we come to reconsider how we see Stuart as the character of Queen Elizabeth is introduced; Thomson’s control over her character’s arrogance, entitlement, sense of humour and sincerity allows us to both love and hate the Virgin Queen exactly as the script intended and sympathise with her Scottish cousin. Her monologues late in the show tend to drag on a bit but the solid foundation she established early on allows us to turn a blind eye to these slightly overplayed moments. It’s hard to pick a standout from the supporting cast – they all tend to follow a similar development that doesn’t give them a whole lot of diversity. Bazzi improves as his lines diminish; Burke’s calm stage presence is always welcome and well acted in a play full of egos; Matthew Whittet as French diplomat Aubespine deserves acclaim for his voicework; and Rahel Romahn as Elizabeth’s secretary Davison has this Richard Atkinson-like aura that makes his limited time on stage incredibly memorable (I genuinely hope he does stand-up on the side). I wish we saw more of Shrewsbury (Peter Carroll) and less of Leicester (Andrew MacFarlane); Carroll’s particular style of comedy is genuinely missed later on, leaving him without much to do, and Leicester’s role as an advisor to Queen Elizabeth is necessary to indicate her struggle for power as a woman but I think could be shortened without losing the skill MacFarlane brings to the cast. Finally, and I’m including this mention because I don’t want her to feel left out, but go Darcey Wilson as the Young Girl – you had no lines, but damn you can clean up the stage and serve drinks well. Maybe bring something bigger than a hand towel to wash up all that blood from a failed assassination attempt though.
From a production perspective, though, there is little to fault. The powdered wigs, sparkly dresses, corsets and crowns of the era are reproduced to near perfection by Costume Designer Mel Page; no more does her talent shine through than in a dance sequence near the middle of the play, when a masquerade of Queen Elizabeth’s traverse the stage. Under a blood-coloured stage (courtesy of Paul Jackson’s lighting), John O’Connett’s choreography adds the piece-de-resistance to what I believe is the show’s best couple of minutes (with no dialogue or real acting during this). Also, be weary of Elizabeth Gadsby’s set – much like the staircase at Hogwarts, it ‘likes to change’ (yes, that’s an actual quote from a Harry Potter movie; yes, I am a big enough nerd to remember it). There’s even a savagery to Max Lyandvert’s Sound Design that I feel needs mentioning (but won’t elaborate on to avoid spoilers).
Ultimately, in a play full of challenges, Director Lee Lewis takes on the biggest one and attempts to make the old new. I’m interested to see how STC’s older audience reacts to it, but from my perspective, it’s quite a lovely show. Whilst I find it disgraceful they didn’t give Lady Darci and Tinkerbelle (both playing Mary’s nameless dog) a bow nor a mention in the program (allegedly they’re considered ‘extras’ when in fact they truly are the play’s heroes), that’s a fight between me and the STC (for now, at least). Go in with an open mind, and for the most part you should be pleasantly surprised.