FringeReview UK 2019
Brighton Little Theatre’s production of Schiller’s Mary Stuart is directed by Leigh Ward, with a dazzlingly simple red-and-black set designed by (this time cast member) Steven Adams, with matching minimal props. It’s painted by Tom Williams with lighting design and sound operation by Beverley Grover. Costumes by Margaret Skeet and Laura Johnson use smart contemporary dress offset with the two queens’ contrast: homely prison till near the end for the title character, and Lurex-smart Elizabeth I. At BOAT Theatre July 17-20th.
Transferring from the intimate Brighton Little space to Brighton Open Air Theatre, this is astonishingly brave. That’s even given the Almeida’s triumph in 2016, though of course there’s that film. This new version by Peter Oswald responds in lithe heightened prose (with some rhymes) to Schiller’s cracking pace and cracking apart of queens. Brighton Little Theatre’s production of Schiller’s Mary Stuart directed by Leigh Ward contains some of the most outstanding performances seen even here in recent years, with a striking set and rationale; it also raises challenges. But it must be seen.
Schiller’s fictive meeting between the rival queens that ends in a shaming of Elizabeth that seals Mary’s fate (and triumphantly romantic martyrdom) importantly allows humiliation to Elizabeth, victory in Mary’s knowing she’s humbled her. It’s not quite what was planned.
It’s about strategy, queens and sacrificial pawns. So to start with there’s bifurcation and the sense of game, even chess in the set. Emblazoned in a dazzlingly simple red-and-black vertical stripe design flung over the concrete backdrop by (this time cast member) Steven Adams, there’s matching minimal props. A fine set of red and back squares with a thrust walk from a chessboard is striking. It’s painted by Tom Williams with lighting design and sound operation by Beverley Grover – blue and green lights alternate and colour the black suggesting subtly different colour schemes. I’m not sure Eurythmics’ torch-song hits the mark but it sure pumps up action. Costumes by Margaret Skeet and Laura Johnson use smart contemporary dress offset with the two queens’ contrast like the squares in red and black: homely prison in old red till near the end for the title character, and Lurex-smart Elizabeth I in black.
Ward’s and Adams’ distilment promises much, and for the most part the cast deliver wonderfully. The excellent Tess Gill as Mary suggests the queen’s famed ferocity, entering at a tearing pitch; though in her first scenes this now modulates more than her time at the BLT. Vocal levels in this new outing are more equalized. Gill’s reading inclines more to Mary’s haughty pride, less of her vulnerability. Towards the end in the confrontation scene and in her exit she finds more light and shade, and quiet dignity – tinged with joy to encourage her servants.
Mimi Goddard’s Kennedy is a study in helpless outrage that despite Kennedy’s station is fearless; Goddard follows Gill in an even pitch of grief, a faithful echo.
There’s a few impertinent moves in the actions of Joseph Bentley’s otherwise superb Mortimer, Mary’s secret admirer. He jumps up above Mary and lays hands on her: that’s direction and breaks the simmering noli mi tangere of queens Renaissance or Romantic. Elsewhere though Bentley’s powerful and responsive.
As is the superb Nikki Dunsford, as Mary’s gaoler stern-seeming but ultimately kind Paulet. All containment, Dunsford moves almost imperceptibly from stern admonisher to taciturn champion. When she and Gerry Wicks’ Burleigh interact, it’s theatrical gold. Wicks keeps his voice almost to a whisper, Dunsford keeps her low, initially damning this new charge, wishing her dead. Paulet though opposes Burleigh‘s murderous intent quietly but with adamantine integrity. Mesmerising.
As is the magnificent entry of Sam Nixon’s Elizabeth. The English court is where this production kicks into fifth gear. It’s electrifying. Rarely has even this stage pulsated as something so small and yet so large as Nixon bestrides with a nonchalant command, a whiplash wit and keen responsiveness and timing to her courtiers, notably Steven Adams’ Leicester, a physically towering presence who rightly bulks large in Elizabeth’s imagination. It’s one of Adams’ most assured performances though vocally he’s up against Nixon who exudes a purring danger as she plays with and dismisses French marriage envoys Aimee Webb’s neatly tricksy Aubespine and Sophia Furtado’s slippery Bellievre. They both return as Mary’s confidant Melvil (Webb shining as secret female priest) and Furtado’s Page. Nixon alone among the cast stalks up the terraced verges, eyeballing everyone, and flirts Liasions Dangereuses-style with Mortimer. It’s less outrageous than thrilling.
Courtier Talbot however is a different matter. Originally Mary’s gaoler she like Paulet now has come under her spell, one of Schiller’s tragic tropes: only Elizabeth is immune, and even then…. Talbot wants some clemency and here Faye Woodbridge is another superb realizer, standing up to Leicester (who we find has secret thoughts of Mary, as has Mortimer), the murderous politic Burleigh and Elizabeth herself. Woodbridge stands fully up to the lot of them, and in her responsive quick-witted nobility and her final self-dismissal, one only regrets she’s not given more to do.
Rob Punter’s luckless secretary to Elizabeth, Davison, makes a neat sotto-voce end to appearances, doomed from the start as a pawn.
The climactic scene with most on hand is thrilling; Gill raises her powers further. Nixon still commands even in frustration, and the attendant slow coach-crash of personalities, the extremes of temperament unravel with horrible inevitability. One great strength of this production is lucidity: we see through commentaries exactly what’s happening and why.
Adams and Bentley to enjoy two scenes where Bentley gives free rein to his own extremes, his pushed-for martyrdom and rescue bids. It almost seals the havering Leicester’s fate. Wriggling, he’s forced to witness the execution of the woman he’d wanted to rescue.
The final scenes bring at first a hushed closure as Mary confesses to Melvil, a touching to and fro between Gill and Webb; then the grudging imperceptible granting of Mary’s wishes where Paulet, not Leicester is her final champion. Out of the side of Dunsford’s mouth there’s gruff benediction ‘Allow it’ of Mary’s women accompanying her. And for Leicester a devastating kiss that undoes him. Gill’s scarlet dress, a blazon of splendour over her dull red, is a striking dress -change.
The final appearance of Nixon, damning courtiers and finding others damn her and withdraw, is darkly pyrrhic. Even crushed Nixon commands, and her final withering sets the seal on a brilliant, if flawed production. See it. Some of these performances begin to obliterate memories of that outstanding Almeida performance.