With Coriolanus, we had the parallels to the victory of Trump and the disarray of democracy. With Mary Stuart we had echoes of the war on terror.
Elizabeth I is an insecure leader whose reign is under constant threat from enemies external and internal. She holds her Catholic cousin and counter-claimant to the throne Mary Stuart under house arrest, while the conflicts sparked by the Reformation blaze across Europe.
What should Elizabeth do? Execute her rival and the figurehead for rebellion against her reign, as some of her advisor urge her? Or show Christian mercy, as her more compassionate – and perhaps more politically canny – counsellors encourage?
While Elizabeth hesitates Hamlet-like over her quandary, the members of the secret Babington circle plot a dramatic rescue and armed insurrection against the Virgin Queen.
Ultimately, their plot fails and Elizabeth orders Mary’s execution. Or rather, she creates a situation in which she ensures Mary will be executed without giving a direct order. She sides with her advisers who see Mary as a religious fanatic and terrorist sympathiser.
It is Elizabeth who is the focus of the play, despite its title. The work is a close-up study of the conflicts of power under extreme pressure. A misstep by Elizabeth could be fatal to her, to her reign, and to her nascent church.
This ‘semi-staged reading’ formed part of the Bunker’s SchillerFest, a week-long festival of the dramatist’s work. In contrast to other productions, Mary emerged as something of a cypher in this production, in part because her physical isolation means she was confined to soliloquies and whispered debates with her handmaid.
Elizabeth instead raged and soothed, swinging between the desire to be ruthless and the urge to mercy. She was by far the more interesting and intriguing character, giving the audience a sharp sense of the multiple conflicts and dilemmas she was handling.
I left with Mary Stuart added to those fine works of art that are fascinating studies of power and its deadly perils.