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FringeReview UK 2016

Low Down

The Almeida’s re-routing of classic continues. After the Oresteia and an acutely updated Uncle Vanya Robert Icke’s adapting and directing Schiller’s Mary Stuart Robert Icke’s brings a pared, contemporary slant to a German Romantic reading of Renaissance England designed to illustrate 1800 politics.


Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams stand on a spare wooden O of a revolve with rails that rise and fall in Hildegard Bechtler’s striking minimal set, that in Jackie Shemesh’s lighting throws the very Almeida bricks as so often, into varying backdrops.


Laura Marling’s music punctuating or Paul Arditti’s sound pitch an intimate space Tim Reid’s video monitors heralding the acts and times of day interpolates 25 hours. At one crucial point videos zoom in on a piece of paper being written on.


Robert Icke’s relationship with the Almeida has brought us the Oresteia with an added prequel like a lost Aeschylus, and an acutely updated (not quite contemporary) Uncle Vanya. Now adapting and directing Schiller’s Mary Stuart he brings a pared, contemporary slant to a German Romantic reading of Renaissance England designed to illustrate 1800 politics.


So two actors Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams stand ritually at odds as if both on trial whilst a coin’s spun to decide who plays Elizabeth, and who Mary, on a spare wooden O of a revolve with rails that rise and fall in Hildegard Bechtler’s striking minimal set, that in Jackie Shemesh’s lighting throws the very Almeida bricks as so often, into varying backdrops.


Nothing detracts from suit-clad bodies, or voices, Laura Marling’s music punctuating or Paul Arditti’s sound pitched to an intimate space. Only Tim Reid’s video monitors heralding the acts and times of day interpolate: there’s barely 25 hours from 7am to 8am with a postlude. At one crucial point videos zoom in on a piece of paper being written on.


On Press Night it’s heads. It has to be, given what we know. Stevenson is Elizabeth, Williams Mary. We’re plunged into visceral plotting where both women with hair styles strikingly similar to Theresa May and not terribly far from Hilary Clinton become sites of something other than 21st century politics. Dialogue (as Icke’s configured it) is rapid, both impelled and impaled. Even overlapping nothing’s lost where the whole cast’s clarity pitches as if lit up; words stab and print on the air making hate and love in the same instant. Schiller’s verse still beats with updated sexually explicit force, lean periods of rhetoric and rebuttal without the comedic touches of say Mike Bartlett’s Charles III.


This version is astonishingly physical where nothing gets in the way. Both Elizabeth and Mary are manhandled in ways Donald Trump might admire: Elizabeth perhaps lovingly by her old lover Leicester, imploringly by life-saving loyal old Talbot, chillingly by Machiavel Burleigh. Mary, also loved by Leicester is sexually assaulted by her would-be-saviour Mortimer, and caressed most truly by her maids in the final scenes.


It’s those physical moments that flout any invested authority. Whether queen or even contemporary PM, it’s inconceivable that Elizabeth who still exercises the power of death over anyone would permit herself to be touched even when collapsing. Perhaps in Donald Trump’s world that might chillingly alter (and Icke wittily quotes from the Donald). One has to suspend disbelief, go with this remarkable vision, though noting it’s mildly symptomatic of male directors’ physical subjection of women under the guise of its opposite. There are worse transgressions, the National’s new Hedda Gabler almost skewed by it.


So it’s not history then. Or is it? Schiller’s interested in the process of one woman’s power over another traduced by politics and regal pride away from rapprochement and mutual recognition. He’s also deeply suspicious of 18th century rationalism embodied by Burleigh: Vincent Franklin’s titanium boa-constrictor writhes about Elizabeth’s conscience and once her body as she collapses in intolerable conflict. Franklin’s darkly urgent baritone narrows its bore to sibilance, hisses imperatives then barks its calibrated register of sophistry, persuasion and outright bullying.


John Light’s Leicester is the heldentenor of the night, masking a duplicitous toss of a double-headed coin in his head deciding to which queen he can show true fealty. It’s a masterly display of how passionate delivery hides both incredibly quick wits and an ability to betray or save himself on the steely spin of circumstance. He’s deeply attracted to Mary (there were rumours, as well as the better-known love of Elizabeth) and at two crucial points acts, or nearly acts to save her from Burleigh and indeed Mortimer, the double-agent Catholic who in Rudi Dharmalingam’s reading is both ardently quick-witted boy and sexually deluded adolescent. His religious reverence for Mary is also sexual, as in the erotic siting of so any religious texts. The shock of his assault shows he’s flipped over (like the very different Trump) to a male Catholic model of women. Light’s Leicester has learned; perhaps Dharmalingam’s Mortimer despite his youth never could.


The thrust of five acts traces an arc, where the first and last focus on Mary’s prison, the second and fourth the great parries at court with Elizabeth, and the park scene in Act Three where the Queens fictionally meet, the formal catastrophe dead centre.


Stevenson’s Elizabeth isn’t the one of popular imagination and here she’s even more teasingly playful than history reports. She flirts heavily with Mortimer when it seems he might be of service, with Leicester of course with scenes of ancient erotic charge still pulsing; and with Alan Williams’ Talbot a true tenderness for a man who saves her twice and of all men is the only one who truly loves her. His final decision is then heartbreaking. Stevenson’s mental velocity confronting conflicted advice and the split court (Leicester and Talbot for sparing Mary, Burleigh against) shows strength, agility and a final terrible dispatch as well as Machiavellian entrapment to a hapless secretary (David Jonsson’s Davison) impelling him to do what she’ll condemn him for.


She only falters crucially once, after the attempt on her life points wrongly to Mary, and collapses as Othello does. Burleigh’s Iago-like hissed counsel might almost have been ‘work on, my medicine’: Schiller knew his Shakespeare. Stevenson’s final apotheosis hurtles backwards in time as she’s trussed up with white mask and the hooped paraphanalia of her truly Elizabethan dress, as in her dazzling portraits. It literally transfixes her in rigid self-condemnation: like some gothic tale, she’s frozen into one of her images.


This is in direct contrast to Williams at the same moment, who’s stripped down for her final scene. Williams thus seems even slighter, more sinewy and throughout this reading more vulnerably erotic, less arch or playful. She embodies all these qualities in her rigorous unpicking of Burleigh’s chopped logic in the first act. He suggests she should be a lawyer and tries to turn this against her, but Williams will have none of it. more versatile in role than Elizabeth can be (her register’s different, slippages and stratagems). Mary relies on a lowlier courtier’s sophistry, most extraordinarily when pleading. Instinctively she deploys the rhetoric she was taught – rhetoric, though earnest to death – rippled and skewed by instinct. She momentarily dazzles Stevenson’s head-light-caught Elizabeth.


Fatally, however, Mary’s passion and pride is goaded in an icy probe displaying Stevenson’s Elizabeth can wince at slights but crucially turn them back on Williams’ Mary. Mary can recover from a Mortimer, rebut a Burleigh, and smiling commiserate two-heads Leicester on his regretful choice. But with machinery dedicated to ending her, she can only narrow her appeal to one person, and when this fails fatally exposes her reverse: fury, scorn, outrage at not being treated as an equal. It’s a headlong descent followed by an attempted assassination pinned on Mary, a botched rescue from two clashing suitors, and denouement.


Talbot’s counterpoised in Mary’s camp by Eileen Nicholas’s gently remonstrating Melville, her nurse and counsellor, ultimately as we discover something far more. Again the dignity of true service evinced by an older generation harks back to an earlier, if illusory stability, a recognition of hierarchy that here seems forged in a crucible of anarchy.


Others enjoy their glint from the Sun Queen: French Ambassador Aubespine, as played by Alexander Cobb is a model of outraged dissimulation. He cannot believe he’s in danger of his life unless he leaves. Carmen Monroe’s Marian maid Kennedy, and Mortimer’s uncle the kindly Paulet shows an upright man placed impossibly and yet acquitting himself with more honour than nearly anyone else. Suli Rimi’s voice rings with its own conscience, confronting Burleigh or Mary. Daniel Rabin’s Kent etches the quiet relief of a man not ensnared, surviving in the shadows yet delivering the coup of the final lines.


My adaptation of the year, this is a production notable for its embodiment of words as weapons hurtling through three hours as if in a breath despite the interval, actors text and physicality writhing around realpolitik impaling the very notion of royalty. Nothing, the anti-aristocratic Schiller suggests now, is legitimate. It’s a terrible lesson for his time and ours. Supremely realized by Stevenson and Williams, Icke’s triumphant production dispenses with trappings save to point up the reverse symbolism at the end which like all opposites fuses into one lost head in two, as both queens’ final gaze burn like scenes from an execution.