Queen to Queen: Reinventing Schiller's Mary Stuart

By Ruth Leon
18 Apr 2009

Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer
Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer
Photo by Alastair Muir

Janet McTeer is Mary, Queen of Scots and Harriet Walter is Queen Elizabeth I in a new adaptation of Mary Stuart.

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Mary Stuart, Friedrich Schiller's 1800 drama about England's Queen Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots confounds all those complaints about there being no roles for actresses "of a certain age" (read: over 25). This recent transfer from London's West End, currently playing at the Broadhurst Theatre, provides two.

They are inhabited by two of Britain's favorite stage actors, neither of whom seems to have any problem finding suitable roles on either side of the Atlantic: Harriet Walter (Elizabeth) was last on Broadway with the Royal Shakespeare Company's wildly successful All's Well That Ends Well in 1983 and received the Evening Standard Best Actress Award in 2005 for this performance in Mary Stuart, and Janet McTeer (Mary) won a Tony Award in 1997 as Best Actress for her Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House. Both are, by any measure, the real thing, experienced and much-loved performers at the top of their game, and thrilled to be back in New York with a fine supporting cast of American actors in a great play.

Interviewing Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter is fun, even on the rainy London morning after the American presidential election, when all three of us are bleary from watching television all night. At breakfast, they present an appealing physical contrast. McTeer is very tall, elegant but powerful, and aware of Walter's comparative delicacy, joking, "I could pick her up and throw her into the third row without breaking a sweat." Walter is soft and gentle and, in person although not onstage, looks constantly surprised.



Old friends, they finish each other's sentences and jokes, speaking in a stream of consciousness. "Apparently, there is such intensity in the conflict between us onstage that the audience becomes convinced that we hate each other," says Walter (or is it McTeer?), "so we've started to hold hands and make a point of smiling at one another during the curtain calls."

I ask them what they love about the other's performance. "Harriet's Elizabeth is all stillness and icy clarity," says McTeer.

"Janet's Mary is red earth and fire and that's what people fall in love with," counters Walter, "and such acute intelligence."

There is a third member of this impressive female crew, the director Phyllida Lloyd. "Perfect," pronounces Walter. "Not remotely indulgent, doesn't let you get away with anything. You get something for free with a woman — you can trust her, be vulnerable and weak."

This production of Mary Stuart started in London's prestigious but tiny Donmar Warehouse before moving to the West End, so it was originally produced on a shoestring. "This made us look for more imaginative ideas than we might have if we'd had the big cast and lavish costumes that Schiller's play calls for. We had to show the difference between these women's public lives and their inner sanctums, so Phyllida made the audience into the court. Genius idea."

The play's most important scene is a meeting between the two queens that historically never happened. The real Mary, in danger of being condemned to death by her cousin Elizabeth, believed that she would escape execution only by convincing Elizabeth in person that she would put her own throne at risk by killing another queen; although Mary begged for such a meeting, Elizabeth resisted. In Schiller's play, it happens. "These two women travel in opposite trajectories towards Mary's beheading at Elizabeth's orders, from Elizabeth's power at her court while Mary's being kicked around in her prison to the power shift as Mary finds her own strength and Elizabeth's vulnerability comes to the fore."

The other risky idea was to have the two queens in period dress while the men who surround them wear business suits. This sets Mary and Elizabeth off as iconic, in a different world. "Men in suits have run everything forever. Running countries is their birthright. And here are these two women who are queens not because they have married a king, but by birth, so what they have in common is much more powerful than what separates them. They are isolated by a fate nobody else shares. Only they know what it is like to be a queen. Their job is to have babies who will be heir to their thrones and to control their own situations." It's politics — and, says Walter, "all politics is about religion and war." Protestant Elizabeth is haunted by her shaky claim to the throne and by the fear that Catholic Mary's claim is stronger.

"To have the men in suits reminds the audience that this is a modern phenomenon too, one in which the women are usually the weaker partners." McTeer again. Or Walter. "It started as a creative idea to distance the queens from the men around them and only incidentally as an innovative way to get around our tiny budget, but until opening night we weren't sure it would work." It worked.

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This new version of Schiller's Mary Stuart is written by Peter Oswald.