Family Feud and the old adage “you can’t choose your relatives” are most clearly at the root of Friedrich Schiller’s inventive take on the rivalry between Mary, Queen of Scotland (Lucy Peacock purposely begins with a low flame, saving her searing heat for the fictional meeting between herself—power lost) and Elizabeth, Queen of England (nothing short of superb is Seana McKenna)—power clung
Both queens have significant character flaws and decision baggage making it difficult for most viewers (beyond diehard believers: any religion but mine and you are damned forever—thank goodness those days are long past…) to choose one over the other as heroine. Mary conspired to have her husband killed, then married the murderer. When those acts soured her populace she ran into the figurative arms of her royal cousin only to be put under house arrest then on trial for her transgressions. Found guilty by a vote of 40-2, it still fell to Elizabeth to sign the death order for the conniving family member that she’d never met face to face.
Much of the play centres around the monarch’s dilemma: Do I appease the blood lust of my subjects and order Mary beheaded? Or do I incur their wrath for being seen as heartless once the sorry deed is done? Wise enough to understand just how fickle public opinion can be, she turns to her court for advice.
Lord Burleigh, given a full-marks performance by Ben Carlson, can’t wait for the head to roll but also the impending wedding with the King of Catholic France. Mary is a devout papist (and hot to rule both Scotland and England—all the better to trample the Church of England). Surely such a death/marriage combo would bring Burleigh’s homeland security for evermore.
The older, definitely wiser Earl of Shrewsbury (pitch perfect; subtly timed and nuanced in Brian Dennehy’s care) takes the long view: a bloody act now would backfire while life imprisonment ought to assuage the hotheads and see justice done.
Marvellously, the Earl of Leicester goes both ways. Like all “trusted” advisers, some are quite happy to play to the highest bidder and see where the chips fall. Yet Leicester’s goal is far more than good government, he’d be happy to bed either queen so makes it his nefarious, opportunistic business to play one off the other. Geraint Wyn Davies readily devours the wide-ranging part and is the ideal catalyst between the devil he has known and the devil he craves.
Various others flesh out the Elizabeth’s entourage but it’s the two relative youngsters that wreak most havoc.
During his time abroad, Mortimer (wide-eyed nephew of Mary’s keeper, Amias Paulet—James Blendick, spot-on again) simultaneously found God and art in Rome: I had never felt the power of art till now./ The church that reared me hates the charms of sense:/ It tolerates no image, it adores/ But the unseen, the incorporeal world. And thus an idealistic rebel/terrorist is born. Ian Lake is excellent in the part, notably his lusty determination to rescue Mary and become husband No. 5.
Then when it comes down to the crunch, a dithering Elizabeth entrusts the death warrant to the newest lord on the block, Sir William (Dylan Trowbridge metaphorically peed his bloomers with astounding surety) only to have her purposeful lack of clarity “do your duty” without elaborating on the details (somewhat akin to, for fictional example, saying to your chief of staff: “Make this senator scandal go away”) leave her supplicant without an iota of direction as to the “how.”
Blessed with such an exceptional cast, director Antoni Cimolino could, more or less, say “begin” and the production would have been well worth seeing. Nonetheless his penchant for details (the blood-red cross as circumstance required) and dramatic sense not only sending the action to intermission just as the women prepared to do verbal battle, but—thanks to the deadly accuracy of Steven Hawkins’ lighting plot—creating a freeze frame that had the crowd positively salivating for the next 20 minutes (happily, the mood–wrecking busking duo were not in evidence during the interval; hearing unabashed banjo and kazoo while trying to reflect on what had just transpired in Measure for Measure two nights earlier became near-impossible with the unwanted cacophony).
The universality of Schiller’s work can be found daily as Toronto’s mayor struggles with a hidden truth and when faced with advice to tell a bit of his own, fires the messengers or unwittingly provokes them to willingly jump ship.
The common link to both is that these are just examples of actions and decisions that ruin lives and careers, but only because they were discovered in the first place.
A viewing of Mary Stuart by Ford Nations everywhere is highly recommended. JWR