PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Mary Stuart — Two Crowns and Twelve Suits

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20 Apr 2009

<I>Mary Stuart</I> stars Harriet Walter with Janet McTeer; Old Vic chief Kevin Spacey and guests Carla Gugino, Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker
Mary Stuart stars Harriet Walter with Janet McTeer; Old Vic chief Kevin Spacey and guests Carla Gugino, Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker
Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Meet the first-nighters of Broadway's Mary Stuart.


Mamma Mia! director Phyllida Lloyd entered a Regina Mia! mode April 19 as Mary Stuart began her Broadway reign at the Broadhurst. You could even call it a Regina Mia Mia Mia! mode, this being a new and eminently accessible translation (by Peter Oswald) of Friedrich Schiller's historically stodgy account of the battle royal-to-the-death between Mary, Queen of Scots, and her "killing cousin," England's Elizabeth I. Lloyd of London imported the same acclaimed theatrical royalty she employed over there at the tiny Donmar WarehouseJanet McTeer's Mary vs. Harriet Walter's Elizabeth — and plopped them down ceremonially on Broadway-sized thrones in stylized 16th century frocks. Then, she outfitted her two stars in a dozen crème de la crème stateside (mostly American) actors, all dressed in contemporary business suits to play assorted friends and/or foes of the court (advisors, lovers, assassins, ambassadors, courtiers, officers, makeshift priests, plotters, house stewards, jailers).

The centuries separating the play's dress code is a key to the light years between genders in this era — two female kings functioning in a society dominated by men. If Elizabeth had her way, she would have had The Virgin Queen writ large on her gravestone. And Mary had little use for the opposite sex either, imprisoned for 19 years on trumped-up charges of killing her husband.

The reason behind this protracted "house arrest" was when Mary left her native Scotland after a Protestant coup in 1587, she was making queen-like sounds that reached the ears of Elizabeth, who was already paranoid about men taking power away from her. The fact that Mary was a Catholic, and thus a rallying point for forces trying to end England's 30 years of Protestantism, made her a serious threat to her throne — but, mostly, Elizabeth preferred to ignore the issue and Mary — and wound up dodging several assassination attempts that were laid at Mary's prison door.

Virtually every attempt to depict this tony tug-of-war builds to the same counterfeit confrontation — a meeting of two power-driven women. In real life, it never happened, darn that dramatic effect! Writers have been forced to fabricate their own scene. All of the fictions sped Mary along to the chopping block, but the one Oswald/Schiller conjured up may be the worse example of Queens Behaving Badly.

On arriving at Tavern on the Green for the glittering after-party, director Lloyd and her players ran the press gauntlet in one of the spacious anterooms removed from the main dining area which was already brimful of 700 happy first-nighters.

Straight-away, an auteurist asked Lloyd how this regal catfight fitted in with the unbroken line of solid sisterhood she exuberantly displays in Mamma Mia! The director interpreted that as a musical-versus-classical question and ran with it.

"To be honest, it's almost one thing for me," she advanced. "I came more from this world — this world of classical theatre. It's funny, in Britain, I think a lot of people who have done work on plays — and operas — by dead people have ended up going into the world of musicals because, maybe, producers think, 'Well, at least they know how to move a big group of people around the stage, or know how to work with dramaturgy,' et cetera, so, to me, it's just different kinds of collaborations."

Casting director Daniel Swee served her up a quality cast of American collaborators. "They've helped us to go to another level," she said. "There's no question. We've been able to take the English production and just go beyond it because of this group. And the girls have been very willing to throw out everything we did before and try and rebuild it. We never did, 'It works better if you . . .'"

Her key collaborator on the anti-spectacle physical look of Mary Stuart was her designer, Anthony Ward, who dressed the set in Early Spartan (one long, low-slung bench stretching across the stage in front of bare brick wall) and the actors in No Frills (save for some minimal period-piece accessories for the ladies in command).

Lloyd explained, "We just felt, 'First of all, do you really want to hear the play?' You don't want to be thinking, 'Now, this guy has an orange sash and a green codpiece and a sword and a hat — this whole fandango. I've done Elizabethan costuming in a Benjamin Britton opera. It's fantastically expensive, and it's such a number that focuses you wrongly.

"We were trying to show how the women are connected to all of this. They're isolated in these worlds of male power, and, in some ways, they're constricted. Men move freely from one court to another, but women must contend with these corsets.

"What we were trying to show with the two women was the way they almost changed places, fashion-wise. Elizabeth begins as a theatrical diva with all the adornment while Mary begins with a blanket wrapped 'round her in her cell."

By play's end, that equation has been reversed. Mary goes to her death in to-die-for scarlet, which, noted Lloyd, "is actually based on what she did. She did do that kind of coup. They obviously didn't want her to make a great big theatrical splash of her death — but, when she got up on the scaffold, they suddenly managed to remove one layer, put on these sleeves — and then she was standing there in Marxist Red." And Elizabeth is left alone without her advisor, taking cold comfort for her action with a blanket, and looking out to the audience forlornly, a victim of her own court intrigue.

"That's it!" said Walter, the actress who leaves you with that haunting image. "It's lonely at the top. The cost and the price of power is total isolation. It was a terrible, terrible moment in her life's story. She really did not want to put that woman to death."

The meeting that could have prevented all that didn't happen for a reason, said Walter: "Elizabeth probably felt she couldn't really control things if she met the woman face to face. The ball was in her court. The meeting couldn't happen unless she allowed it so she deliberately never did allow it. I think she was right not to because you couldn't then go and behead somebody if you'd met them. It's very hard to play the scene because Harriet listens to all Mary's arguments and thinks, 'Yeah, I completely agree. Oh, you poor kid, I don't want to kill you.' And Elizabeth has to go, 'You're my rival. If I don't kill you, I'll be dead myself. It's as simple as that.'

"The other thing was that Leicester was a childhood love of Elizabeth. They grew up together. And that's why we play the love scene rather childishly. I kind of like that. And, in fact, Schiller has made him sort of two-faced lover of Mary/lover of Elizabeth. But he never even met Mary in real life. He might have glanced at her across a room, but he certainly was not her lover. So that's a device to get me to go to the meeting."

Walter has found it's good to be queen. "I love being queen," she admitted unabashedly — in fact, "I've been Empress of Egypt and Queen of England in the last two or three years. I played Shakespeare's Cleopatra in between the first time we did this and the last time, and that's kinda different. People say that Shakespeare was almost doing a portrait of Elizabeth when he did Cleopatra, and there are certain aspects: Both are extremely intelligent, can speak lots of languages, had ruthless kind of political nous and were volatile. They used their unpredictability as a kind of political tool. It sounds like an unreconstructed feminist to say they used their femininity to make themselves strong, but they did."

Walter's Elizabeth has a conspicuous humanity than most don't. "I've seen loads of Elizabeths — I've even seen this play before, with other Elizabeths — and everybody interprets her differently. She's a bit like Hamlet. Everybody has a different take on the character. You could go on working on her for a long time and never crack her.

"I've been encouraged by Phyllida to expand in all those human areas to show many more facets of the character than I did the first time around. I was more linear. I wasn't so rounded so I felt that pleasure. I don't like terribly going back to a part. Certainly, I've never gone back to a part after as long as this. I have the feeling, 'Well, that was me then. Now, I want to be somewhere else.' But I loved the idea of coming here because I was so proud of the production, and I wanted more of the world to see it, but, personally, I was thinking, 'Do I want to get into that corset again?'"

McTeer, who took the Tony for Ibsen's Nora her first (and last) time she was on Broadway, confessed to opening-night nerves. "And why wouldn't I be nervous? But then I just got on with it and did my job. It's a fantastic play. We were going to commission a new translation when Phyllida and I came across Peter Oswald's. We read it several times and thought it was something we could really have a go at."

[flipbook] She, too, thinks it a good idea that Elizabeth and Mary never had their one-on-one, even if that aching deficit has subsequently given dramatists license to kill. "Mary did, in fact, write to her endlessly, saying, 'Can we meet? Can we just talk?' And there was one moment in time where Elizabeth did, in fact, pass where Mary was staying by about two miles. Of course, in Elizabethan time, two miles is really tiny when you think that it took you five days to travel 35 miles. So I think Schiller took that moment and just imagined what that would have been like. But I think Elizabeth in real life was very clever and she knew, if she met her, her plan wouldn't work."

As staged by Lloyd, this faux coming-together occurs at the top of the second act during a driving, 12-minute rainstorm, which, McTeer insisted, is fun to act in: "Oh, it's wonderful. It's great. It's very freeing. And I think what's particularly great is that the first act is so tense and so tight and she's so restrained and so miserable — then you just sorta come on in the rain and do all that. It's so exciting and so much fun. And you can feel that the audience is surprised by it. It's not what they're expecting."

McTeer couldn't venture a guess how this would go down with audiences. "I think you get what you get from it. It's very political. It's very moving. You get to have a great combination of lots of things. I hope people enjoy it on lots of different levels."


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