The Almeida’s Mary Stuart opens with the most fabulous coup de theatre I think I’ve ever seen: a coin is tossed and, based on which actress has called the coin, the outcome determines who gets to play Mary Stuart, prisoner, and who gets to play Queen Elizabeth. The person who loses has their jewelry removed and their shoes taken off and walks off the stage barefoot; the other actress keeps her jacket and becomes power bitch, ruling over her court and completely in control. The point we’re trying to have pointed out to us is one made explicitly in the script; the person who is the “winner” and the person who is the loser is completely chosen by the hands of fate and has little to do with their own choices. However, what we witness is two actresses taking an incredible risk; can they each remember a bucketfull of dialogue, and be a different person, at the flip of a coin? ARE THEY ALL POWERFUL MAGICIANS?
As I watched the show, though, I stopped thinking about the role of chance and started thinking more about the action and the characters. I somehow started seeing Juliet Stevenson (our Elizabeth) as Theresa May … unsure how to deal with all of her power but desperate to show she was the one in charge. Sure, Elizabeth had a lot more to be weepy about than Theresa May, like managing foreign relations via her own marriage, but as Elizabeth became more cornered I saw more and more the modern politician with a shag blonde cut. And Queen Mary, well, the foreign devil held prisoner with no course to help … how could I not see Mary Stuart (Lia Williams) as a refugee held in some ridiculous Home Office limbo, denied access to her friends, family or legal council … with no choice but to beg for mercy from an arrogant sovereign who saw crushing her as a way to prove her own power? Theresa May, tyrant; Mary Stuart, every person ever desperate to escape death. And I can’t tell you how horrifying it was to watch Mary try to escape someone who’d decided that she owed him sexual favors because, really, when you’re in that kind of powerless position, how much ability do you have to say no? How much can you even protect yourself? And how much does each and every man who helps a woman in those kinds of desperate straights think that he now has a right to her body?
While the show itself is a bit of a marathon (and certainly has lots of history in it to keep you feeling like you’re getting an edumacation as well as being entertained), what I found amazing, more that the gobstopping interchangable actresses, was the crisp, vivid relevance of what I was seeing on stage to what is going on in the world around us. It’s not just a world where we’re fighting for how to spend our theater dollar, it’s a world of politics and power that theater can reflect back at us through a thinly curved mirror. Oh yeah. Mary Stuart. I came for the acting; I left feeling energized to go back out there and fight for oppressed people everywhere.
(This review is for a performance that took place on January 19th. It continues through January 28th. I had the supposedly crappy £12 side seats and was grateful for them and felt like they were excellent value for the price.)