Sunday 29 January 2017

Mary Stuart at the Almeida, or, Ultimately Untrusting of the Audience

Note: A belated review of the matinee performance on Saturday 21st January 2017.

Regular readers will know that I have not been a fan of recent work at the Almeida, or of Robert Icke's work as a director. As a result I was not optimistic in advance of this performance. There are some strong aspects to this show, but overall I found it a more mixed experience than many.

Icke chooses to set the work in an unspecified modern time and place. That's to say although the script keeps all the stuff about prisons, England/Scotland etc. there's really nothing in terms of the almost bare circular stage to help to make that concrete. The show gets away with this in the scenes at the English court, it is rather more problematic in Mary's prison where the set completely fails to give any sense of oppression, and in the outdoor meeting at Fotheringhay where there is no assistance to the contrast the script evokes between prison and the outside world. Within this bare environment, Icke's movement direction is bizarrely inconsistent. In the English council scene and the intimate Leicester-Elizabeth encounter which follows it is excellent – adding point to the sparring councillors, sensuality to the duo. But elsewhere Icke is much less sure footed – his decision to have the queens sprawled on the ground for much of the famous encounter is a mistake, as is the choice to have the subsequent debate over the death warrant conducted by the participants charging round in circles while the set simultaneously revolves beneath them – it's distracting and ineffective. Icke also commits the familiar error of leaving a dead body (Mortimer) on stage and clearly visible to the protagonists of the next scene despite the fact that they are clearly not supposed to be able to see it or to know that character is dead, and of not getting people off stage swiftly enough at the start of other's soliloquys which they (those departing) clearly should not hear. On several occasions, I was reminded of the unsuccessful film close-up style Icke employed in his recent indifferent The Red Barn at the National. Here as there, I felt that Icke expects you to watch particular faces and places and therefore pays insufficient care to his onlookers, or to how people get off the stage. The problem is that, unlike in film where the director can give effect to such wishes via what he chooses to film, on stage that power is not the same.

Other familiar Icke vices are also present. The TV screens of Oresteia are back so the much discussed coin toss of the opening and the signing of the death warrant can be filmed. Icke also insists on projecting the title of the play at the beginning and each of the Acts with a time. All this could be dispensed with, as could his assertion that the play is taking place in a single day. The soundscape by Laura Marling is intrusive and ineffective – it's a nice question whether the worst element of this is the periodic ticking clock (it's perfectly clear without it that time is an issue) or the ridiculous song interpolated into the execution scene – again over-emphasising Icke's points.

Also flawed, to my mind, is Icke's adaptation. He's determined to hammer home points of contemporary relevance, for example drawing knowing laughs from some sections of the audience on a joke about the problem of popular will. As so often in theatre these days I felt I was being ordered to agree with his particular take – subtlety, as I've frequently argued, can have far more powerful impact. But the bigger problem is Icke's central thesis which asserts the similarities of the two queens – hence the coin toss approach whereby Stevenson and Williams swap roles on the whim of chance. Despite all Icke's efforts, including doing his own adaptation, I sometimes felt he was fighting the play. More seriously, in the performance I saw, with Stevenson as Mary and Williams as Elizabeth, a performance undermined it.

Williams is an outstanding Elizabeth – successfully carrying the shifts from public to private, from affection to authority. While up to a point one can see parallels to Mary, the play gives Elizabeth too much capacity for self-control and the retention of power – both attributes Mary lacks – for the assertion that they are two sides of the same coin to really hold up. But the problem also is that Stevenson's Mary just doesn't display the range required. She starts too high and both stays there, thus lacking the requisite variety of mood, but also meaning that she has nowhere to go in response to the emotional twists and turns. She's supposed to exert an electric attraction on just about every man who comes within her orbit – the play insists upon it. But Stevenson's performance never convinced me in that respect. The play is, whatever else, a battle royale between the two – in this performance, the victory was too tilted towards one almost from the outset.

Of the supporting roles, the standout is John Light's Leicester. The gradual transformation from the still, contained presence in the council scene, through his private sexualised encounter with Elizabeth to his desperate attempts to save his own neck is very finely done. Vincent Franklin's Burleigh grows in presence through the show, though he isn't always helped by the direction. The same applies to Rudi Dharmalingham's fiery Mortimer. Alan Williams's Talbot is weaker, again, like Stevenson, his delivery is too much on the same level, and where he needs to go toe to toe with Burleigh and Leicester he is short on weight. Whoever the four maids were in the final scene do their best, but Icke slows the pace far too much at that point, and given the stripped down nature of this performance generally I found it difficult to see why they'd been retained.

Overall, this show is worth seeing for the performances of Lia Williams and John Light. I obviously don't know how it would fare if the coin toss went the other way – I almost never see a show twice and I certainly do not regard this show as strong enough to merit it. I remain a sceptic about the merits of Robert Icke.

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