by Friedrich Schiller
Vancouver East Cultural Centre
$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
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
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.