You can argue all you like, as historians and theologians have for centuries, about which of them has the greater claim to the English throne. But after seeing the terrifically exciting new production of Friedrich Schiller’s “Mary Stuart,” which opened Sunday night at the Broadhurst Theater, you won’t doubt that both the queens it portrays are born to rule. So, I might add, are the actresses who play them.
That would be Janet McTeer, as Mary Queen of Scots, and Harriet Walter, as Elizabeth I. And they embody what may be the most storied rivalry in English history with a transfixing willfulness and devious artistry that could easily make the susceptible lose their heads. This being the year of our Lord 2009, no such sacrifices will be demanded literally. But it’s hard not to be at least a little in love with — and more than a little in awe of — the very leading ladies in Phyllida Lloyd’s crackling revival (first seen at the Donmar Warehouse in London) of this 1800 tragedy of double-dealing politics.
Ms. McTeer, who won a Tony Award in 1997 for her emotionally supercharged Nora in “A Doll’s House,” and Ms. Walter (last seen on Broadway with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1983), have long been royalty of the British Theater, actresses equally and regally at home in Shakespeare, Ibsen and Yasmina Reza. They are exceptionally well equipped not only to command an audience’s attention, but also to make the case that, historically, she who would be queen has always of necessity been a great actress.
At first the hot-blooded Roman Catholic Mary (long a prisoner of the English crown when the play begins) and the ice-blooded Protestant Elizabeth (who sees Mary as a fiery rebel in need of extinction) would seem to belong to different species — mammal and amphibian. Ms. McTeer and Ms. Walter make it piercingly clear that their characters are as alike as they are different.
Both have grown up on public stages, where their every gesture is analyzed, and know, as Elizabeth puts it, that “the world thinks through its eyes.” Both are dependent on the approval of restless and fickle audiences. (Elizabeth’s style is crisp, tight and severe, while Mary’s is expansive and passionate, but they’re both major grandstanders.)
And, ah, the ultimate rub: They are “female kings,” as Peter Oswald’s juicy new adaptation of Schiller’s German text has it, in a land where men are used to being governed only by men. This production, designed by Anthony Ward, ingeniously emphasizes the disparity by having only the female cast members in period Elizabethan costumes. The men wear latter-day Westminster business suits, and the expert actors inside them convey all the thorny ambivalence of having to bow to sweeping skirts.
In other words, don’t hate Mary and Elizabeth because they’re powerful. On the other hand, don’t love them just because they’re lonely. These are dangerous times they live in, and they are undeniably dangerous women. They share only one scene, yet you are always aware of each as the shadow of the other, looking over her shoulder for her doppelgänger cousin. As for that one time they meet? It can only be described as elemental. Mary isn’t wrong when she speaks of her and her cousin as fire and water.
The classical combination of strengths, weakness and circumstance that define tragic heroes has seldom been parsed with such flash, vigor and lacerating insight. Those who know Ms. Lloyd only as the director of the stage and film versions of the shrewdly mindless “Mamma Mia!” may be surprised by the crystalline intelligence she brings to a text more likely to be read than staged. (Donizetti’s opera “Maria Stuarda,” adapted from Schiller’s play, is more familiar to New York audiences.)
This production makes you wonder why “Mary Stuart” hasn’t been seen on Broadway in more than three decades. Admittedly American audiences are averse to costume dramas (by anyone other than Shakespeare) in which royal genealogy and canonical law are points of fine debate. (Remember the snoozy “Man for All Seasons” last fall?)
But “Mary Stuart” has a fierce timelessness in its depiction of political power games and the roles played — then as now — by charisma, duplicity, self-editing and what has come to be known as spin. It is also one of the most unsettling studies I know of the captivity in which heads of state are condemned to live. (Note to Michelle and Barack Obama: See this immediately.)
At the center of the play is an instance of Hamlet-like vacillation: Elizabeth knows that her throne is unstable as long as Mary, who still has a fanatical following in England, lives. Yet she can’t quite bring herself to sign the death warrant. After all, what would people think?
The action shifts between the prison at Fotheringhay Castle and the royal court, while Mary awaits her fate as Elizabeth decides it. Around these women swarm phalanxes of men, whose actions regarding the queens are shaped by a messy mix of political self-interest, nationalist sentiment, sexual attraction and, as one line has it, being addicted to their own existence. These men are played by an assortment of mostly American actors, many of whom have never been better.
I especially liked John Benjamin Hickey as that spineless, seductive spinmeister, the Earl of Leicester; and Robert Stanton as a terminally naïve courtier. But the show also features fine performances from Chandler Williams, Nicholas Woodeson, Michael Countryman and Brian Murray, with a humble Maria Tucci in the sole supporting female part, that of Mary’s devoted handmaiden.
Though “Mary Stuart” would seem to be made for a big pomp-and-circumstance production, the look here is hypnotically stark: black brick walls, austere minimalist furniture and outsize shadows that lend an even greater urgency to a show that relentlessly keeps you on the edge on your seat. (Hugh Vanstone is the lighting designer.) Ms. Lloyd knows that a great intellectual potboiler like “Mary Stuart” demands Big Theatrical Moments, and she doesn’t cheat you of a single one.
I don’t think it’s spoiling anything, given the image of a sopping Ms. McTeer in the ads, to say that the Biggest Moment of all is when the two heroines meet. It’s in the midst of a splendidly simulated rainstorm. Elizabeth, true to form, stays dry, both physically and in manner. Mary is lusciously wet, a natural woman exulting in temporary freedom and, spurred on by the presence of a potential lover, speaking far more naturally than is good for her.
That encounter, for the record, never really happened. But you have to be grateful that Schiller invented it, if for no other reason than it allows Ms. Walter and Ms. McTeer to fire insults like archers with flaming arrows. You probably know how this battle ends according to history. But as it’s waged in this production, I’d have to call the outcome a spectacularly entertaining draw.
Politics and power, in any age, are a dirty business. If the last Broadway transfer from the Donmar Warehouse, "Frost/Nixon," was a keen reminder of that point, the London company's latest transatlantic traveler, "Mary Stuart," imparts the lesson even more trenchantly. The setting is late 16th-century England, and the writing dates back to 1800, but the spin, chicanery and ruthless self-preservation of a government that both abides by and manipulates public perception are timeless. Phyllida Lloyd's steely revival of the Friedrich Schiller play simmers and scalds as it should, but it's the deft balance of the parallel tragedies of two imprisoned queens that makes the production so enthralling.
One of the master strokes of Lloyd's austere presentation is to costume rival monarchs Elizabeth (Harriet Walter) and Mary Stuart (Janet McTeer) in period dress, surrounded by men in contemporary suits. Their ranks may be elevated by bloodline and their current stations at opposite extremes, but these women are equally isolated and undermined in a world of scheming male bureaucrats.
Just as Christopher Hampton did with "The Seagull" earlier this season, Peter Oswald's new version vigorously shakes the dust off the Schiller text. This is no stodgy history lesson but a juicy regal smackdown rendered in direct, muscular language that acquires its modernity without investing unduly in anachronisms. Emotional stakes, intrigue and tension are elevated throughout.
Oswald delineates the cousins' reverse trajectories in bracingly limpid terms. Resplendent in black and gold amid her monochromatic courtiers, Elizabeth at the start is all pinched superiority and tart condescension, seemingly untouched by feeling for Mary, who's been languishing in prison since she fled Scotland after a Protestant coup 19 years earlier.
Given the mounting threat of a Catholic insurgency to remove the illegitimate Elizabeth from the throne and install Mary, the Tudor Queen wants her out of the way. But she risks the rejection of a fickle public. "Slave to my own free people," moans Elizabeth in an acrimonious soliloquy.
Drawing on her considerable political wiles, the Virgin Queen maneuvers to have Mary iced by means that allow her the appearance of mercy. But she's entrapped by a court council led with pitbull determination by Lord Burleigh (Nicholas Woodeson), and by her own jealousy, pride and even conscience. The bitter hollowness of her victory is etched with transfixing candor on Walter's face, leaving her aged, alone and plagued by doubts.
By contrast, Mary first appears as a humbled penitent, stripped of her possessions and attended only by her loving nurse (Maria Tucci). Her regal bearing is undiminished but her acknowledged complicity in the murder of her husband weighs heavily on her, a condition not eased by her keepers' refusal to allow her religious sacraments.
Like Elizabeth, Mary mistakenly places her trust in men: first the infatuated and fanatical young Catholic convert Mortimer (Chandler Williams), then her cowardly former flame, the Earl of Leicester (John Benjamin Hickey), the oiliest of silver-tongued survivors. But unlike the circumspect Queen, Mary remains strong-willed and impulsive, spewing her outrage in a stunning torrent of rebuke. Having cast off her humility, she follows by renouncing both love and hate, ascending to martyrdom in a serene state that makes Elizabeth appear all the more pitiable.
The intersection of these crisscrossing paths is Schiller's imagined encounter between the two queens. And that much-anticipated faceoff doesn't disappoint, staged by Lloyd in the wake of a 12-minute downpour.
Relishing her unaccustomed taste of freedom, Mary gets soaked to the skin, placing her at a disadvantage when Elizabeth emerges, crisp and prepared, from beneath her attendants' umbrellas just as the rain abruptly stops. It's a stunning theatrical coup, particularly in such a stark context. The visual charge is matched by McTeer's fireworks as Mary summons strength through indignant fury, leaving Elizabeth in abject humiliation.
Thrilling as her angry aria is, however, there's a nagging invulnerability to McTeer's performance. It's technically flawless but chilly, with little evidence of Mary's legendary charm. McTeer's natural imperiousness and athletic robustness make it seem as if Mary could take down Elizabeth and all her flunkies without even pausing to put down her rosary. More convincing in primal rage than beatific bliss, the actress is unemotional; she's impressive but rarely moving.
Walter, on the other hand, is shattering. It takes skill and subtlety to evoke sympathy for such a vain, calculating woman but Elizabeth's is the outcome that resonates.
The American supporting cast stands up admirably against the dueling Brit divas, notably the impassioned Williams, artful Hickey, and Woodeson, whose diminutive height adds to Burleigh's pugnaciousness. Michael Countryman explores the fissure between duty and compassion as Mary's guard; Robert Stanton comically boxes himself into a fatal corner as a royal scapegoat; and Brian Murray brings sly humor and profound morality to his every line as the Earl of Shrewsbury, perhaps the only decent man in the court.
Lloyd has invaluable backup from set and costume designer Anthony Ward, who places minimal wood furnishings against an imposing stone wall, across which flicker the glowering shadows and violent colors of Hugh Vanstone's moody lighting. This is a superbly focused production that permits no distractions from the antithetical arcs of its heroines, or the political machinations that shape their tragedies.