Theatre

Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Mary Stuart shares with the recent film starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie a desire to portray rival monarchs Mary and Elizabeth I as sisters pitted against each other by the patriarchy.

By Harry Windsor.

STC’s Mary Stuart

Caroline Brazier, Darcey Wilson, Fayssal Bazzi and Simon Burke (clockwise from left), in STC’s ‘Mary Stuart’.
Credit: Brett Boardman

Our enduring fascination with Mary, Queen of Scots, has spiked in 2019. Kate Mulvany’s Sydney Theatre Company adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s play Mary Stuart follows swiftly on the heels of former Donmar Warehouse artistic director Josie Rourke’s big-screen telling with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, which came out in January. The fascination continues, at least in part, because the Scots queen remains an essentially enigmatic figure, her historical significance as intangible as her legendary charisma. Antonia Fraser, whose biography of the queen made the writer’s name in 1969, was obsessed from girlhood with Mary Stuart. But different versions of the woman appealed to her at different ages; the child queen displaced by the femme fatale. “Still later,” Fraser wrote in a foreword to the new edition, “I became interested in the way one woman’s story could be traced like a kingfisher, flashing through the political history of France and Scotland: until the bright bird was caught and made captive in England.”

The King of Scotland died within days of his daughter Mary's birth. She was a child queen packed off to France at five and raised as the presumptive wife of the dauphin, whom she duly married when she was 15. Three years later, upon the boy’s death, she returned home, now a queen of France as well as Scotland. There, the devoutly Catholic Mary had to contend with a country that had become Protestant in her absence. She was regarded as a beauty and even her enemies, such as the firebrand reformist John Knox, could find no quibble with her looks – a fact Mulvany plays up in a scene in which Elizabeth’s advisers, asked by their Queen about the pretender’s physical appearance, flail about wildly.

Mary’s disastrous second marriage to her feckless cousin, Henry, Lord Darnley, was followed by an even more disastrous one to the Earl of Bothwell, who was suspected of Darnley’s murder. Mary’s decision to marry Bothwell, though it may well have been involuntary, made her look complicit, and the Scottish nobles demanded her abdication. Fleeing to England, Mary sought the assistance of her cousin once removed, Elizabeth I. But Mary was considered by Catholics, as this adaptation’s Lord Burleigh puts it, to be a “living angel", the legitimate English sovereign, and so Elizabeth remanded her potential rival in custody for 19 years. 

Mary’s confinement is more or less where the film ends and this production, directed by Lee Lewis and with Caroline Brazier as Mary and Helen Thomson as Elizabeth, picks up. Rourke’s film is indebted to Schiller’s play in that it climaxes with a confrontation between the two monarchs, which never happened, but it’s otherwise a less focused affair, forced to squeeze decades into two hours. But Rourke, Mulvany and Lewis, are nevertheless fired by the same impulse: to reclaim a story about “two women of power” that, per a program note by Lewis, has been told until now only “through the lens of a white European man”.

It’s not hard to understand why this particular story is in vogue at this particular moment. Mary is generally believed to have been raped by Bothwell to enforce their marriage, and the STC’s production even has Robert Dudley (Andrew McFarlane) aggressively hitching up the dress of an unwilling Elizabeth.

Rourke’s film was criticised for grafting a kind of 21st-century wokeness onto a 16th-century story, particularly in a scene in which Mary tells her gay secretary, Rizzio, to be what you wanna be (and after he’s slept with her husband, no less). As Kate Maltby pointed out in the Financial Times, “It’s odd to see a woman long weaponised by the Roman Catholic Church as martyr to orthodoxy now transfigured into LGBT activist ...” The STC production has more in common with The Favourite, the new film directed by Yorgos Lanthimos about Queen Anne. Each is bawdy and irreverent but deeply felt, too, and each liberally deploys the word “cunt”.

When we meet Mary, there’s something recognisably Australian in her slouch, laconic and insubordinate. Sitting on set designer Elizabeth Gadsby’s central stepped platform in conversation with her jailers, Brazier makes for a romantic, suitably dignified figure of captivity. Her performance contrasts starkly with Helen Thomson’s as Elizabeth, which exists in another, altogether more comic register. Likewise her attendants: as the unctuous French ambassador Aubespine, determined to see Elizabeth married to the Duke of Anjou, Matthew Whittet delivers the platonic ideal of outrageously over-the-top French accents, thwarted at every turn by the Queen’s amused noncommittal. Thomson’s comic broadness, not to mention the broadness of her accent, works not only because the size of her personality befits a monarch but because her japes  read as armour-cladding.

The difference in performance styles only slightly complicates the play’s thesis, shared by Rourke’s film, that Mary and Elizabeth were two sides of the same coin. Not just cousins but, as Mulvany has it, “mirror images”. The highlight of this adaptation is their rendezvous, in which Mary, apparently freed from her cell by a Catholic rebel operating clandestinely at the English court, confronts a drunken Elizabeth. Beau Willimon’s screenplay for Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots didn’t give Margot Robbie much to do other than look tremulous, but Mulvany successfully keeps her sympathies just about in balance. This Elizabeth is articulate and hardened by a youth in which her half-sister imprisoned her in the Tower – and for two whole months! The look of chagrined disbelief summoned by Brazier’s Mary is priceless.

There’s an extended scene in which Elizabeth refuses to tell her hapless secretary (Rahel Romahn) what to do with the seal of execution after she’s signed it, and later she inveighs against Lord Burleigh (Tony Cogin) for carrying the order out so promptly. Thomson is just hysterical enough to make you wonder if it’s all an act. But the writing and staging seem determined to let her off the hook, rather underselling Elizabeth’s calculation in the process. Thomson very powerfully gives way to utter desolation as she brings quill to parchment, while Mary’s courage and piety – praying as she endures a gruesomely botched execution – make true believers of even the oldest Tudor loyalists such as Shrewsbury (a very fine Peter Carroll).

So even-handed is Mulvany that she sometimes tips the scales against her fugitive princess, having Mary confess to the murder of Darnley, as well as general sexual licentiousness. Both film and play are determined to give their heroines convincing blemishes as well as newfound agency, a noble aim that sometimes sits awkwardly alongside a desire to situate them as, if not quite pawns, two women unable to extricate themselves from a patriarchal framework.

That message gets dialled up before Mary’s execution, as when her long-time jailer Paulet (Simon Burke) expresses his disappointment the two ladies couldn’t just work it out. “I wish you men had let us,” Mary returns mournfully. The final scene in Schiller’s original has Elizabeth alone and abandoned, but here she’s joined by Mary, who haunts her not out of revenge but solidarity. Onstage behind them is a scullery maid (Darcey Wilson), heretofore dialogue-less, who exists only to sing about “captivity” as the lights go out.

Elizabeth and Mary’s confinement is a subject the playwright clearly identifies with. It’s a subject Mulvany previously explored in her adaptation of Kit Williams’ Masquerade, and the scullery maid here is perhaps meant to portend a dawning consciousness that there are horizons beyond the domestic. The whole thing could well have been called Mary and Elizabeth, grabbing at each other’s throats – or elsewhere – but united by power and loneliness. Gadsby’s austere, high-windowed set never changes, making court a prison and vice versa.

Mary Stuart understandably wants to have it both ways, portraying them as “chess masters” rather than pieces, as Mulvany puts it in the program, but also as sisters set against each other by a man’s world that insists there’s “barely enough room for one woman of power … let alone two”. That’s a lesson shared by The Favourite, only that particular chess match doesn’t try to absolve its players of their very human self-interest by claiming they never had a choice in the first place.

Arts Diary

PERFORMANCE Koori Gras

Carriageworks, Sydney, February 19-24

PHOTOGRAPHY Greta Costello: Nature and Form

Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, February 10—March 2

VISUAL ART Ben Quilty: The Accident

Jan Murphy Gallery, Brisbane, February 19—March 16

MUSIC Richard Gill AO: Celebration of a Life

Arts Centre, Melbourne, February 21

VISUAL ART Desert River Sea: Portraits of the Kimberley

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until May 27

VISUAL ART Dapper

Bundoora Homestead Arts Centre, Melbourne, until May 5

THEATRE A Midnight Visit

Girls School, Perth, until March 3

Last chance

MULTIMEDIA The Garden of Forking Paths: Mira Gojak and Takehito Koganezawa

Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne, until February 17

FESTIVAL 2019 National Multicultural Festival

Venues throughout Canberra, until February 17

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 16, 2019 as "And the twinned cried Mary". Subscribe here.

Harry Windsor
is a film and theatre critic for The Hollywood Reporter and the former editor of Inside Film.