(Susannah Clapp’s article appeared in the Observer, 12/18.)
Last year Robert Icke made Oresteia the most compelling drama in London. Now he stages Mary Stuart, written in 1800, to explosive effect. Schiller’s play has been stripped back, rewired. Icke’s adaptation is sculptural, rich and incisive. Hildegard Bechtler’s bare, round design creates an arena in which characters try to break out of circular arguments. Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams are mighty.
The dare of these actresses. Mary Stuart deals with the relation between Mary and Elizabeth I, and centres on an imaginary meeting between them. Stevenson and Williams go on stage each night not knowing who is to be Mary and who Elizabeth. That is determined in front of the audience by the spin of a coin – presumably a sovereign.
Not a gimmick but an insight. There is nothing logical or inevitable about who ends up in power. And these queens are two sides of one coin: Catholic and Protestant; lover and virgin. Mary is in prison, but the crown is also “a prison cell with jewels”: it takes free will from the woman who wears it.