Friday, May 31, 2013

Review: (Stratford) Mary Stuart

Lucy Peacock (l), Seanna McKenna and company (photo: David Hou)

A Tale of Two Queens
Stratford royalty reign over this astounding new production
by Stuart Munro

It’s not very often you get the chance to see two legendary actors in their prime portray characters that seem to have been crafted for them and them alone, but this is exactly what we are given in Stratford’s new production of Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller (in a new version by Peter Oswald). Directed by festival artistic director, Antoni Cimolino, this Mary Stuart is a powerhouse of a production filled with dynamic direction and stellar performances.

Set in the days before the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587, Mary Stuart is a religio-political drama that centres around a fictional meeting between Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth I of England. The success of the play hangs on that scene, and the tension that precedes and follows it. And while every moment has been beautifully crafted by Cimolino, the ultimate success of that crucial meeting is thanks to the extraordinary talents of Lucy Peacock as Mary and Seana McKenna as Elizabeth. As Mary, Ms. Peacock is strong-willed, but never arrogant; convinced of her rightful claim to the throne, but also fully accepting of why she has ended up in prison. The serene calm during her final scene, moments before her execution, was sublime and heartbreaking – may we all be so untroubled as we meet death. Likewise, McKenna’s Elizabeth is the perfect portrait of a woman who, while in power, believes she has none, yet is surrounded by those who obey her every word – she makes such a paradox comprehensible. Her severe shock in the play’s final scene sent chills down my spine, and I expect through the hearts of everyone in the audience. These two women meet for only a few brief moments at the top of the play’s second half, but those brief moments alone are worth the price of admission – the power of that meeting resonates throughout the remainder of the play right until the lights come down for the final time. Indeed, my only complaint is that this scene is too short! I’d’ve been only too glad to watch these two women interact all evening.

Under the watchful eye of Antoni Cimolino, this entire production moves with grace and fluidity

Equally as impressive are the pairing of Ben Carlson as Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth’s advisor; and Geraint Wyn Davies as the Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth’s close friend, suitor, and secret lover of Mary. Watching these two exchange words is like watching two master swordsmen spar – each move is calculated and precise, yet seemingly spontaneous and unrehearsed. Likewise, Ian Lake as the double agent, Mortimer, commands the audience’s attention whenever he is on stage.

Under the watchful eye of Antoni Cimolino, this entire production moves with grace and fluidity – the pace never seems rushed, but the momentum of it carries you from the very first moment to the heart-rending conclusion. Designer Eo Sharp’s costumes run the full gamut of Elizabethan finery, and the two queens are dressed so exquisitely that they need to be seen to be believed (the beauty of Mary’s final dress defies description!). In tandem with lighting designer Steven Hawkins, Sharp has littered the furniture and costumes with labyrinthine designs to mirror the uncertainty and indecisiveness of the main players in this political drama. My only question regards the decision to build furniture that spans the centuries to the present day.

I first saw this version of Mary Stuart four years ago in New York and I was instantly impressed by the play and the performances. But in the care of Mr. Cimolino, Ms. Peacock, and Ms. McKenna, Mary Stuart appears to have found its fullest expression and is sure to become a production people will talk about for years to come.

Stratford’s Mary Stuart runs to September 21 October 11 at the Tom Patterson Theatre

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