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 Warehouse — Janet 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."
Most first-nighters were ready to concede a couple of Best Actress nominations to McTeer and Walter — this, mind you, in a season brimful of brilliant competition — and the buzz was that award-consideration could easily spill onto the suits (in particular: the two born-Texans who convince you they have a place in Elizabeth I's court — Plano's John Benjamin Hickey and San Antonio's Robert Stanton — "and Brian Murray," as the venerable vet is smartly billed on the Playbill title page.) Murray plays the Earl of Shrewsbury, a voice of reason and compassion among the queen's advisors, and the unlikely hero who foils an assassination attempt on her.
"I liked Shrewsbury when I read the play because he doesn't have any political agenda — he has a personal agenda, and that's always nice," declared Murray. "The research I did is based on his relationship with Mary. He looked after her and fell in love with her a good 15 years. It's only touched on in this version. There's a play about Shrewsbury and Mary — people will want to go there, but that's not what this play's about. He was also a secret Catholic, which the play doesn't talk about.
"Where I think the play connects quite amusingly and brilliantly with what really happened was in the area of Elizabeth's wishy-washiness. She refused to have anything to do with it. She was a great kind of evader, and she said, 'I don't want to be connected with whatever's happening so I'm not going to do anything about it.' But I think that what the play touches on very brilliantly is her refusal to commit."
The "little man" who plays the price for his queen's inability to participate actively in her cousin's execution was Sir William Davison, a new man at court and inconsequential paper-pusher whom Elizabeth entrusted with her signed death warrant for Mary. The queen's attitude was "do with it what you will." When he pleaded for clarification — a misjudged nuance could be catastrophic, he cried — she provided none, and he paid the price for that when his superiors wrestled the document from him and carried out the execution Elizabeth wanted no part of. It is a late-blooming Everyman crisis that materializes almost out of nowhere in the final stretch of the play, and, once he at last gets words to work with, Stanton proves quite affecting. "He was the 'Scooter' Libby of the 16th century," the actor cracked. "Do you know what's awful about it? It's all true. It's about three weeks of agonizing negotiations with Elizabeth boiled down into five minutes. He wasn't executed, but she destroyed his life. He had six kids. She turned her back on him. He was out of the tower in two years. She fined him so heavily, he lived in terrible debt. It was Mary's son, James I of England, who eventually said, 'I know you didn't kill my mother,' so he forgave him, and he also leavened the burden of debt for Davison's children."
All this, Stanton uncovered in a 500-page 19th century book by Sir Nicholas Harris Nicholas, called "The Life of William Davison." "There's a slight misogynist bent to it — he doesn't like Elizabeth — but I really fell in love with William Davison. He was described as 'the sweetest man who ever lived' by contemporaries, and he had at his disposal all of the records of trials he had to endure. With tears in his eyes before the star chamber, he refused to indict his queen. He said, 'She knows the truth.' He wouldn't say what it was. He was loyal to her right to the end. He was a good man." Hickey's performance of the Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth's lifelong main-squeeze and master manipulator in his own right, is his first on Broadway since The Crucible seven years ago with Liam Neeson and Laura Linney, both of whom were in his corner on opening night. Hickey said, "Listen, if I have to wait a few years for a play to come along that's like this play, I'm happy to wait because a play like this is incredible."
He found an early echo of Leicester in him. "I feel, in some ways, he was what I was in high school. I think my motto in high school, unconsciously, was ‘You can't hit a moving target.' Leicester is self-preservational, always looking for a way to better his position and a way out of trouble. He was the Chance Wayne of his day [Paul Newman in Sweet Bird of Youth] — God! I wish I were young enough to do that!"
Walter is Hickey's primary playing partner, and he rhapsodizes about that. "I adore her. One of the things that I think is so inspirational about her performance is how she doesn't play an idea of Elizabeth. There's no real iconography there. I think that was a real conscious choice on the part of her and the director. There's no red wig, bald head, white makeup. It's just a woman, a very, very powerful, shrewd, brilliant, sensitive, deeply hurt woman, and Harriet brings so much humanity to the part, and she's different every night. She jumped up on that bench tonight. She has never done that before. She lifted all of that skirt and hurled herself up there. I'm in awe of her."
Leicester's amorous counterpoint in Mary's camp is Mortimer Paulet, played by Chandler Williams, exhibiting the sensitivity that brought him to Broadway prominence in the 2007 revival of Translations. His uncle, Sir Amias Paulet, Mary's jailer, is played by Michael Countryman, a Yank who adapts well to Brit speak. "This is one of the most wonderful casts I've ever worked with," Countryman added. "It's a very congenial atmosphere. It's the best way to portray this play."
Tony Carlin pretty much covers the waterfront in this play as courtier, officer and others when not understudying Adam Greer and Michael Rudko. "I like to keep all the balls in the air," he quipped. "I worked with Phyllida in Mamma Mia! This show was a little higher brow, but we did the same sort of breaking-it-down, and I really like the way Phyllida works. The Acting 101 exercise is to bring old and young and English and American all together onto the same page. The two stars have been great. Those queens really kicked it out, just brought it into high gear. They are mistresses of the art — do you say 'mistresses' or ‘masters'? I guess you say actors."
Also multi-tasking — courtier, officer and others when not understudying Nicholas Woodeson and Countryman — is Guy Paul. "The wonderful, the fabulous Phyllida has made all of us feel such a deep part of the play," he remarked warmly.
"This could well be the only show on Broadway right now that isn't miked," Paul beamed. "Did you notice? No miking. There's one effect on Harriet where it's supposed to be a big hall so they give you the feeling of a big hall. But, otherwise, no miking of the other voices. None. We do mike our feet occasionally when they want to get the ominous sound of feet approaching or all the men coming into court. We have mikes on the floor, and we have cleats on our shoes — but that's it! It's a combination of two things — well-trained voices and a set that's made out of slate.
"The floor of the stage is rock. Because it's slate and uneven, it's safer on stage than off during the rain scene. When you get off-stage, you're on slick wood. The slate is two inches thick, and it weighs thousands of pounds, and it's over the deck and it's all sealed, and we're on a very slight rake so the rain will drain down to the apron of the stage, go into a gutter and then goes down to a 180-gallon tank in the basement. It's recyclable. You gotta be green."
Glenn Close made the photo tip-sheet but not the play or the party. (She was set to film Schiller's Mary Stuart a few years back, directed by Richard Eyre, but the financing fell through at the last minute.) However, the evening was not skimpy on stars: Matthew Broderick (who's turning into The Philanthropist April 26 at Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre) with wife Sarah Jessica Parker, Cry-Baby's Elizabeth Stanley (bound for the Orient in Xanadu) with Christopher J. Hanke, playwright John Patrick Shanley, The Old Vic's ruling Yank Kevin Spacey (taking bows for his production of The Norman Conquests from some Saturday marathoners), Ralph Fiennes (who did God of Carnage with McTeer in London), Marcia Gay Harden (who's doing God of Carnage now on Broadway, checking out her Best Actress competition), Christine Baranski (who did the movie "Mamma Mia!" for Lloyd), Marian Seldes (heaping expected praise on Murray, her "serial" stage husband), Ron Leibman, Jessica Walter, Allison Janney and Michael X. Martin of the incoming 9 to 5, Dr. Xiuli Meng (sporting a sparkle-plenty engagement ring that would even impress Cindy Adams — a gift over the weekend from her new fiancé, Aubrey Reuben, who photographs for this column), producer Marty Richards, columnist Roger Friedman, Mamma Mia! costumer Ann Roth, actress-producer Cynthia O'Neal, Impressionism's Jeremy Irons (schmoozing with his theatrical countrymen) and Nora Ephron.