Review: Mary Stuart, Faction at the New Diorama

“Who could look at these naked walls and say that majesty lives here”

When I booked in for the first show in the Faction’s rep season, Twelfth Night, I knowingly said ‘I hope this isn’t good’ as I knew that if it were, then I would be suckered into seeing their other two shows. But it was, exceedingly so, and so I found myself back at the New Diorama for the opening of the second show, Schiller’s 1880 play Mary Stuart in a new version by Daniel Millar and Mark Leipacher.

One of my big theatrical regrets of pre-blogging times was missing the Donmar’s production of this play and so this was my first time of seeing it, though I’m fairly familiar with the history, it being an era I’ve always liked. Schiller depicts the final days of the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Catholic cousin and rival to the throne of Elizabeth I, as she is held under house arrest in England whilst the queen decides on her fate. The intrigues of the Elizabethan court are vividly captured as noblemen’s loyalties remain murkily hidden with religion and politics playing off against each other and double-dealing being the order of the day.

The Faction have gone for a bit of a mash-up here (their word, not mine!), combining a modern spy thriller aesthetic with the historical drama in a mixture that is a little slow to start but soon catches fire as the stormy battle of wills between these two women who both feel wronged grows in intensity until a climactic meeting. Derval Mellett’s Mary is gorgeously essayed, righteous indignation seething under her carefully composed exterior and utterly compelling to watch. And Kate Sawyer’s Elizabeth matches her well with an intelligent portrayal of a woman struggling with ideas of legitimacy, sovereignty and basic morality as a death warrant awaits her signature.

What I really loved about seeing the ensemble again though was seeing them take on different roles so soon. Gareth Fordred’s slippery, side-swapping Leicester was brilliant as was Tom Radford’s Mortimer, a fervently passionate supporter for Mary and a vision in his cords!; Leonie Hill’s faithful maid Kennedy was another strong supporting presence, few words to speak but saying volumes with her face. There’s no way I’m going to miss Miss Julie now to complete the set and hopefully see everyone get their chance to really shine.

And not content with the ‘simple’ challenge of putting on three shows together in seven weeks, the Faction have further upped the stakes by choosing to stage each show in a different configuration, really exploring the potential of this theatrical space: where Twelfth Night was presented end-on, Mary Stuart is staged in traverse. This was something of a challenge as the limitations of the auditorium did not allow for a free-flowing production from end to end, and in reality, with the seating in four quadrants, the playing space was actually a cross with a fair bit of the action bunched up into the middle. The theatre’s not big enough for it to be much of a problem but sightlines did become a little awkward at times.

The only other tiny point I had related to the comparative lack of staging innovation, although this was totally because of how they infused Twelfth Night with great imagination. The use of projection was inspired: captions with brief bios about each of the key players proved useful, and the close-ups of important documents proving how well the story slipped into its current-day guise – the Spooks-like ending to the first act was genius – and in some ways it is a shame that they didn’t push further with this modernity in the interpretation. It is only at the end, with Mary’s beheading do we really get a piece of magical staging which is superbly done, and then leading into the fierce punch of the final revelatory scene.

In the end, though I perceived that this was perhaps a little slower to start and a little less imaginative, it could well be that it was as much to do with my response to a play I had never seen before as compared to Twelfth Night which I know rather well now. And in its superlative second half, Mary Stuart more than earns its place in this rep season which is proving to be quite the revelation.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Photo: Richard Davenport

Booking until 18th February

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