Review: Mary Said What She Said, Barbican

Isabelle Huppert – enough said

“Elle soit maintenant venait de mes propres yeux”

I spent a weekend in Amsterdam back in 2019 in order to see Mary Said What She Said because that’s just how much I like Isabelle Huppert. Seeing a French-language show with Dutch surtitles offered its own set of challenges but such is the atmospheric splendour of Robert Wilson’s production for Théâtre de la Ville–Paris, directed and designed by him, allied with Huppert’s magisterial stage presence, that it didn’t really matter.

With the chance to catch it (on my birthday no less) in a short run at the Barbican, I was intrigued to get a better understanding of Darryl Pinckney’s script, drawn from the letters of Mary Queen of Scots during her time imprisoned by Elizabeth I for plotting against her. Part (auto-)biography, part study of the other women in her court, part excoriation of a misogynistic society determined to make history reflect their version of her, it’s blistering stuff.

The term avant-garde gets thrown around a bit too easily these days but Wilson certainly has earned it, and it manifests perfectly here. Mary… sits above genre – extraordinary movement work is accompanied by Ludovico Einaudi’s classical score, recorded speech sits alongside spoken word, it’s as much modern art as theatre, underpinned by an astonishing performance from Huppert, its physicality as impressive as its monologuing, its swells of emotion undeniable.

Undoubtedly it’s not going to be for everyone (would I have come to this had it not been for Huppert? I don’t honestly know) but it is part of the beauty of art in that it can morph so effortlessly into forms like this. UK audiences also have precious little opportunity to see work like this, especially delivered by such luminaries as Wilson and Huppert, and we’re all the poorer for it. Spine-tinglingly scintillating stuff – happy birthday to me!

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