by Friedrich Schiller
Blackbird Theatre
Vancouver East Cultural Centre
September 6-18
$29/$15 plus sc

Blackbird, the new Vancouver theatre devoted to the classics, has launched itself with a German Romantic drama from 1800 that showcases the company’s first-rate acting talent. Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart pits the passionate Catholic Mary against Protestant Elizabeth, two powerful women surrounded by a cabal of male intrigue that provides a choral backdrop for these dueling divas’ pitched battle to the death.

Marti Wright’s bare set features a chessboard floor on which the 16th century Queens of Scotland and England face off. The moves come fast and the counter-moves furious as the play opens with Mary (Gabrielle Rose) already in prison in England, charged with inciting insurrection against Elizabeth (Gwynyth Walsh).

Elizabeth’s advisors are divided as to strategy. Paulet (Duncan Fraser) acknowledges Mary’s threat but insists on letting justice take its course. Zealous Lord Burleigh (the sterling Kevin Williamson) wants her executed immediately. Reasonable old Shrewsbury (Lee Taylor) argues that England hasn’t even the jurisdiction to try her.

Impetuous young Mortimer (Johann Helf, in an uneven performance) is a recent convert to Catholicism and Leicester (Tom McBeath) has courted both Mary and Elizabeth. Each plays a triple game, appearing to act at times for one queen or the other, and at times in their own self-interest.

Elizabeth struggles to maintain control of the volatile situation. Though publicly she appears icy and ruthless, privately she laments that her “heart is soft” and that she’s a slave to the subjects she despises--“the stinking mob,” she calls them, in one of Schiller’s many homages to Shakespeare. She hates Mary and wants desperately to be rid of her, but killing her carries political risks.

As hemmed in by responsibility, Realpolitik, and self-restraint as she is by her tightly tailored clothing, Elizabeth wields great power but can never feel free. Mary, though imprisoned, whirls and dances barefoot, flirts and rages and plots as though the world were her court. Walsh’s contained, frustrated Elizabeth is no match for Rose’s withering, explosive Mary.

Ironically, Rose won a Jessie a few years ago for playing Elizabeth in Timothy Findley’s Elizabeth Rex. She’s brilliant here again as Elizabeth’s arch-enemy. Rose wields her crisp diction and vocal modulation like a weapon, making Mary little girl seductive one moment and monstrously majestic the next. The one terrific scene where the two queens actually meet anticipates the Pyrrhic nature of Elizabeth’s victory at the end and makes clear why the play is called Mary Stuart and not Elizabeth Tudor.

Schiller’s dramatic language lacks Shakespeare’s poetry, and because Elizabeth is the less likeable character, the play’s ending is relatively unaffecting. Nevertheless, the acting of the queens, most of the principal men, and Mary’s maidservant (Lee van Paasen) is excellent. And despite a hodge-podge of accents and a certain undue solemnity, John Wright’s production shines, auguring well for the future of this exceptional company.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Monday, September 12, 2005 12:36 PM
website design by Linda Fenton Malloy