Review: Ruth Wilson in Ivo Van Hove's noirish Hedda Gabler, National Theatre
Review: (But is it) Art, Old Vic Theatre

Review: Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams take turns in Mary Stuart, Almeida Theatre

Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams, Mary Stuart Almeida Theatre. Photo Miles Aldridge

Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams walk on stage both wearing the same blue velvet trouser suit and a white shirt. Lia calls heads, a coin is spun, it lands and the courtiers bow to Juliet and Lia is stripped of her jacket and shoes and led away. This is the way it will play this time and I am pleased; in my head when I thought of the two actresses I saw Juliet as Queen Elizabeth and Lia as her prisoner Mary, Queen of Scots.

And so the stage is set for Robert Icke's adaptation of Schiller's play of politics, power, religion and family. Elizabeth has kept Mary, her first cousin once removed, imprisoned for many years and is under pressure from her council to do something about her. Mary, through her lineage, has a claim to the English throne, is Catholic seen as a threat to the Protestant Queen Elizabeth.

Mary has been tried in a kangaroo court and found guilty of plotting against Elizabeth but the Queen is reluctant to sign the death warrant. She's also under pressure to marry, itself a political hot potato as without an heir a huge question mark hangs over the succession. Mary, realising she is in grave danger plans, with some trusted sympathisers, to make one final appeal to the Queen.

It is a tense political thriller where the stakes are life and death, sovereignty and the future of a country; where being a woman at the top in a man's world requires extra diligence, skill and intuition. Juliet Stevenson's Elizabeth is a woman under pressure from all sides. She is a woman damned if she does, damned if she doesn't. All the advice in the world doesn't take away the fact that the decision rests on her shoulders. She has empathy for Mary's position having once herself been a political prisoner of her own sister Mary I. A little pride and vanity are among her flaws particularly when she is constantly reminded about how young and beautiful Mary is.

Lia William's Mary has a youthful energy.  Yes she has the serenity and grace of a monarch, is an intelligent, educated woman but there is an impetuousness which has tripped her up in the past and may well trip her up again particular as desperation spills over into anger.

Mary Stuart is an intricate political story wrapped around two intricate personal stories. I was on the edge of my seat. I gasped and I cried (quite a bit). There is one change of tone in the final scene during which I thought Robert Icke had dropped the ball but it turned out to be one final, powerful visual punch. Loved it, I'm giving it five stars. 

Mary Stuart is at the Almeida Theatre until 21 January, 2017. It is roughly three hours and 10 minutes including an interval.