Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter are amazing actresses of great intelligence and power, and I’m not just saying that because they’re Brits playing Broadway in a German play that’s 109 years old (I’m not that kind of snob). McTeer plays Mary Queen of Scots, who when we first see her is all mildness and virtue. Not two scenes later, however, she is the embodiment of wounded royal pride, and McTeer plays her sudden savagery with leonine ferocity.
Walter plays England’s Queen Elizabeth I, and her first appearance is a carefully couched diplomatic negotiation. Very shortly, though, we see her teasing and intriguing with her courtiers in private, and Walter plays the woman behind the mask with sharpness and relish. Schiller’s 1800 drama, like so many of his plays, is a psychological thriller dressed up as a thoughtful tragedy. Director Phyllidia Lloyd has a finely tuned sense of when her leading ladies should restrain themselves and when they should go ahead and have the scenery for lunch.
But her production isn’t perfect. First off, there are far too many repetitions in the big speeches which should have been pruned away. And, the best that can be said of her nearly monochrome styling of the show is that it doesn’t particularly get in the way. The queens are dressed in understated vaguely Elizabethan dresses, while all the men wear 21st century business suits. This is only really effective once, when a fellow courtier observes that Lord Burleigh likes to go on political witch hunts and we notice that he’s been styled to resemble Dick Cheney. Otherwise, it’s a minor distraction.
Lloyd has also misfired on staging the last few scenes, ending each one with a solemn piece of stagecraft (a grand procession in one, an ominously slow fade in another, etc.). Each time, it seems that the show has ended, and each time the next scene takes too long in starting—very awkward. These are quibbles with this superbly acted revival, but I am a bit surprised that Lloyd, so careful in staging certain moments, has been so careless in staging other vitally important moments.