Review: Maria Stuart, Stadschouwburg Amsterdam

“Gelukkig is het einde nu in zicht”

One of the joys of Toneelgroep Amsterdam running a repertory company is that over the few years I’ve been following their work and the few opportunities I’ve secured to see them, I’ve been able to gain a real appreciation for the actors as familiar faces reappear. Two of my favourites – Chris Nietvelt and Hans Kesting – stood out in the life-changingly good Roman Tragedies and so the chance to see them again in the same play made another trip to Amsterdam a no-brainer.

That it is Ivo van Hove directing Maria Stuart certainly didn’t hurt either and sure enough, the mastery of his theatrical vision is fully in evidence once again. Schiller’s regal drama sets up two opposing queens, the protestant Elizabeth I and her Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots, as their deadly rivalry comes to a head but for all their disagreements and differences, van Hove shows us how they are as much the same as different, two sides of the same coin trapped by the political machinations of men.

So Jan Versweyveld’s gloomily officious set is both dungeon and palace, both women as much a prisoner as the other even though it is Elizabeth who has Mary in chains (the sonic bursts in the flashes of darkness that herald the arrival of a monarch are beautifully done). And Wojciech Dziedzic’s costumes places everyone in dark suits so the courtiers who swarm around the queens pushing their own political ambitions become both anonymous and synonymous with the male-dominated society.

And this is what the women are forced to deal with in attempting to resolve their respective situations. As she debates signing Mary’s death warrant, Nietvelt’s Elizabeth must deal with a court that would see her married at all costs, whether to Maarten Heijmans’ marvellously thrusting Aubespine (the overt sexuality of choreography is stunning here) or to Kesting’s imperious and inscrutable Leicester who thinks nothing of nuzzling his queen in order to get his way.

Equally, Halina Reijn’s Mary is forced to play the men’s games. The discovery that Matteo Simoni’s fervent Mortimer is secretly on her side is accompanied with sexual demand and thus as one of the few tools left at her disposal, she must use her sexuality. But what Reijn skilfully shows is that Mary is a woman coming to terms with her destiny and determined, pleased even, to be able to build to an operatic climax. The choice to have her finally step into a regal gown is devastatingly powerful in her final scene, Katelijne Damen’s lady’s maid Kennedy just superb here too, and the execution is staged with all the breath-taking, sense-enhancing verve we now expect – a truly iconic piece of theatrecraft.

And then as the play turns to Elizabeth in its final moments, there’s a marvellous, severe harshness. Nietvelt too is finally adorned with the finery with which we normally associate this monarch but it serves to eliminate humanity – the brusqueness with which she deals with anyone who can attest to her decision is appalling, a stiff reprise of the earlier dance is appalling as we see the frame of her dress like a protective barrier stopping anyone getting up close and personal ever again. Nietvelt nails the ambivalence of this victory of sorts and it is an extraordinary way to finish an extraordinary production.

It was interesting to be able to draw the connecting lines with van Hove’s A View From The Bridge, similarities emerging in a way I hadn’t noticed before. The use of an ominous soundscape, blending an electro-classical score with textured sound that ratchets up the tension; the physical language used in the placement of bodies, here the positioning of the courtiers on onstage benches was frequently just beautiful, composed with all the care of a Dutch Master. One day I’ll make a trip to Amsterdam and end up disappointed at theatre, I’m sure of it, but it certainly didn’t happen this time! Get checking planes, train and automobiles across the North Sea, Maria Stuart is worth the trip

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 28th March, surtitled performances on some Thursdays
Photos: Jan Versweyveld

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