Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots were both of the same Royal blood, both anointed monarchs, and both passionate.
This production plays with the similarities and differences between the Queens by having both leading actresses playing one or the other parts on the toss of a coin.
Yesterday afternoon Lia Williams played Mary and Juliet Stevenson was Elizabeth. Mary was quick, impulsive, frustrated, and every inch a queen even when imprisoned in bare walls.
Elizabeth is proud and aloof, commanding her courtiers with a click and primping her appearance with a compact mirror. A public virgin she privately romps with the duplicitous Leicester (John Light) while toying with a promise of marriage from France.
Mary, though, three times a wife, a mother, a lover. Also with Leicester, which may be her downfall, and his. She seethes at her treatment and long imprisonment when seeking asylum – this play is on the side of her innocence – but equally she seeks Elizabeth’s acknowledgement as an equal.
The meeting never happened in history but here it works well within the machinations of state and politics. Stevenson’s Elizabeth is imperious enough to recover quickly following the shock of seeing the woman who has plagued her and caused her endless worry standing before her in the garden at Fotheringay.
Mary’s gamble, hoping for the mercy of another monarch, causes her to move quickly towards execution; a misfire in which Elizabeth’s pride is worked on by a weasley Burleigh, despite the best efforts of a sympathetic yet tradition-bound Talbot (a very strong performance from Michael Byrne).
The slight amusement of early scenes evaporates in Act Four as Mary’s fate is sealed and her execution looms. A Catholic, she is allowed her last communion and to walk to the block in the company of her nurse (Carmen Munroe).
The scene where Elizabeth is garbed in her white face, boned corset and dress, pearls, ruff and wig, is juxtaposed with Mary reduced to a simple shift, majesty removed but morally victorious. It’s an emotional piece which is riveting and accompanied by a new song by Laura Marling.
Robert Icke directs Friedrich Schiller’s play, in a sparse set with modern dressed characters, an explosive script, and two very strong women who are closer together than they might think.
Mary gains a strange sense of freedom while Elizabeth remains uneasy and trapped with the guilt of her regicide. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, indeed.