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Mary Stuart Almeida Theatre Review Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson in Mary Stuart, Photo © Manuel Harlan

REVIEW: Mary Stuart
By Friedrich Schiller, adapted by Robert Icke
At The Duke of York's Theatre, St Martin's Lane, London WC2N 4BG
until 31 March
Reviewed By Alex Kolton

Generally, I opt for musical theater over dramatic or historical shows as I like to be merrily taken away. This is historical high drama and you must be actively present to absorb this story. Robert Icke’s adaptation of Mary Stuart was a sold-out event at the Almeida Theatre last year and was so well received that they have staged it again at the Duke of York’s Theatre with Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams.

Once seated, you could tell it was a seriously read-up audience and I was pleased that I had done some historic research to understand the cousin Queens’ plights as it’s fast moving and at times confusing. But if you aren’t in knowledge do not fret, the direction provides humanistic and relatable motives of the characters and handily included in the playbill is a monarchy flow chart. Stevenson’s and Williams’ fate during each performance is symbolically determined by the flipping of coin at the start to decide who would be playing the rolls of Mary Stuart (AKA Mary, Queen of Scots) or Elizabeth I.

Austerely, the set is a semi-circular, bricked arc with minimal props. The sound plays an engaging role and the men are in modern suits, the queens in velvet with white puffy blouses. Both Queen’s parties provided reasonable arguments making it difficult to choose a side. As Mary and Elizabeth state their arguments, their anguish and inner turmoil build the complexity. There is a strong relevance to the present-day workings of politics, with a strong duality of opinion: In or Out, to impeach or not to? It is like dropping in on two families deciding what to do with an intolerable, tyrannical parent.

There is unsuspected and cleverly timed humor, demonstrations of Elizabeth’s alleged sexual appetite, and physical brutality when she shoves Talbot, played by Michael Byrne whose talented pedigree brought an impactful, precision to the performance. Interestingly, it was he whom I first thought of when I woke up the next day, this play stayed with me for some time. The cast clearly has an otherworldly bond, well done to Julia Horan the casting director.

Annoyingly, towards the end of the second half, a mobile phone went off with a podcast spurting “Hi this is Oprah Winfrey” and it would not shut off. It slung us back to modern times when it was clear the whole audience was intensely engaged and in bed with the players, hanging onto each word. The cast never skipped a beat, and the show carried on.

You do not have to be a royalist, a fan of The Crown, or outspoken about women’s equality to find Mary Stuart of interest and compelling. In a time when finger pointing is apoplectic, this play reminds us that complicated, internal human struggles are felt by all and are never truly black and white.

I would however advise Meghan Markle to see Mary Stuart before her upcoming nuptials, she might think twice about marrying into this lot. Run, don’t walk to see Mary Stuart.

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