Whenever a highbrow classic gets revived, the advertising material almost always uses some form of the word “seduction,” “greed,” or “deception,” a way of reassuring modern audiences that they’re not going to be lured into some drafty old dungeon to face death by boredom. Bad behavior and power struggles are always in style, and if you’re looking for a juicy plot, there’s no juicier one than the rivalry between Mary, Queen of Scots, and her cousin Queen Elizabeth I, to whom Mary fled for asylum only to wind up imprisoned and eventually, on Elizabeth’s orders, beheaded.
This face-off between two ambitious superwomen—rivals in love as well as for the throne—was compelling in 1800, when Friedrich Schiller wrote his adaptation of the story, Mary Stuart. And it should still have plenty of allure in 2009, now that Phyllida Lloyd has brought her acclaimed 2005 London production of the play, in a translation by Peter Oswald, Stateside.
But Mary Stuart is, no matter what the ads say, one of those shows that you know is good for you, like eating spinach. Even as you’re left toting up its brainy virtues, the one thing Lloyd hasn’t coaxed from the material stands out in stark relief: the passionate messiness of raw feeling. These are, after all, two lionesses who see their strengths reflected in each other and can’t stand the sight; their mutual admiration plays out in the way they claw, coolly, at each other’s throats.
The lionesses at the heart of this royal jungle, Harriet Walter (as Elizabeth) and Janet McTeer (as Mary), have to pick their way through a wilderness of metaphors and tropes. The two queens wear period dress; the men around them—either assigned to guard and protect, like Mary’s sympathetic jailer, Sir Amias Paulet, or living their lives purely to instigate trouble, like Lord Burleigh, who fans the flames of Elizabeth’s mistrust of her cousin—all wear somber, contemporary suits. The suggestion, so obvious it’s more like a billboard, is that no matter how strong and authoritative women may become, it’s still men who rule, making wars and otherwise stirring up strife. Instead of just trusting the bones of the play, Lloyd strives for present-day relevance, and the production takes on the tenor of a policy debate. It doesn’t help that, dotted with all those gray suits, the sparely decorated set looks like the site of an insurance salesmen’s convention.
Walter’s Elizabeth is stiff and regal all right, but she’s like a cartoon of a queen, mannered and imperious—the performance demands our respect instead of earning it. McTeer’s Mary is lustier, more vital, partly because she’s such a robust figure. Queenly dignity radiates from her very musculature; her physicality is a kind of passion, and she alone gives Mary Stuart its flashes of life. But they’re not enough. The clothing designer Alber Elbaz has said, “The highest compliment a woman can receive is ‘My God, she looks smart!’ not that ‘She’s sexy.’” And my God, Mary Stuart looks smart. It’s a classy enterprise, dressed in the right clothes; it’s working that gray matter, so rigorously that you could almost fail to notice that it’s dead from the neck down.