Theatre in Wales

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Majestic Drama

At Theatr Clwyd

Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Mary Stuart , Anthony Hopkins Theatre, Theatr Clwyd Cymru , May 14, 2009
At Theatr Clwyd by Clwyd Theatr Cymru- Mary Stuart A government minister warns that a hidden army of young men is primed for violence under the inspiration of a foreign religious power. Paradise is promised as the reward for martyrdom. Dubious statements extracted under torture are paraded as grounds for state action. The legitimacy of a British court to pass judgement on a foreign national is questioned. The civil power stands aside and lets the mob burn down the house of a foreign Ambassador. Mike Poulton’s adaptation milks as much contemporaneity from Schiller’s 1800 tragedy as Terry Hands’ direction avoids any heavy-handed obvious references. The text breathes through the cast.

A Schiller production was once a rare sighting on a British stage. Verdi's gripping version of “Don Carlos” was seen with more regularity than the source play itself until the recent sell-out production with Derek Jacobi. That too was an adaptation by Mike Poulton as is that piece of theatrical granite “Wallenstein” due at the re-imagined Chichester theatre next month.

Some purists may look askance at the new version. Certainly much has gone; no Earl of Kent, metaphors and classical allusions have been deleted, many a monologue ditched. What has been retained is every twist of Schiller's artfully designed plot, the depth of character and the pungency of the politics. With chunks of blank verse thrown overboard the gain is in narrative drive It is also quite fitting as Schiller took liberties with the historical detail so as to mould the plot into his schema of tragedy. .

Terry Hands’ direction is burnished steel. The play opens and closes with a driving drum beat. A largely unadorned stage lets the actors act. Lee Haven-Jones’ leather-clad Mortimer makes an upward curl of his lip as he unveils a conspiratorial plan. The tapping of fingers betrays the inner agitation of courtiers. When Claire Price’s Elizabeth hears mention of “women are not weak” she makes a rapid sideway movement of her head.

Although Mary Stuart has the title Elizabeth is the more ambiguous role, far from the icon of popular myth. When she first appears it is the satisfied surface of power on view, rhetoric played to the applause of courtiers. Her stillness contrasts with Mary's rapidity of movement. Once relieved of public performance the facade of authority diminishes. There is a trembling spasm of the lip. Power is both relish and evasion. At one point she turns her back on her ministers’ argument. Claire Price’s eyes move upwards and leftwards with the glint of watchful intelligence. It is not just liberty that requires eternal vigilance but the retention of authority.

Owen Teale’s reading of Burghley is intriguing, less the aristocratic master of sumptuous Hatfield than the dispassionate, relentlessly purposeful civil servant. “I have no malice” he says to Mary “I make policy” although he is not above treating her with measured venom. When finally goaded to rage at the indecision of Elizabeth he says “You are the servant of your country” This is a somewhat a-historical notion which does jar. Schiller’s line says that her highest duty is the wellbeing of her people. The politics are Hobbesian rather than premature Jerffersonian. There is a similarly jarring line when Elizabeth in a Coriolanus-like outburst calls the London crowd “greasy filth and scum”. Not so; Schiller said they were “wankelmuetig”, blown around by the wind, a very different sentiment.

It is the nature of Schiller’s adherence to Kant, the categorical imperative, that Mary must confess to a private crime, historically doubtful, while innocent of the main charge of public crime. “They sought the form of the thing” she says of the court. With a voice that ranges from the breathy to the deep Marina Hands’ Mary moves beautifully from passion, emotion and logic to a state of grace and transcendence.

As usual Terry Hands is his own lighting designer. Fotheringhay is a black interior with a high-up jail window. Westminster is represented as a Gothic door and high perpendicular window bathed in golden light. When Mortimer relates his conversion to Rome light closes in on his ecstasy. “I entered His world of love” he says, shortly before revealing a plan that will kill his uncle.

Few dramatists have bettered Schiller in depicting the unease of power. “I am alone” says the monarch at the close. He also gives to Leicester, Steffan Rhodri’s duplicitous fading favourite, the central question of politics “How can we trust each other?”

Fifteen minutes after curtain call I was listening to the anger of the Speaker of the House; anger directed not at the improprieties of the privileged but at the lese majeste of those who had revealed them. After Schiller’s portrayal of the evasions of power it made for a fine and fitting coda to a majestic production.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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