The opening moments of director and adaptor Robert Icke’s fantastic reimagining of Freidrich Schiller’s 1800 play about the battle between Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots hinges on a coin call by our stars Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams. Call Heads and you become the Virgin Queen, your counterpart playing Mary, the imprisoned Queen of Scots.
Of course this opening trick is making a serious point in a scintillating production, told on a bare, bleak ominously oppressive stage.
During their exchanges – and Schiller imagines a highly-charged meeting the real pair never had – it is not clear who will reign supreme, the Protestant Virgin Queen on the English throne who fears the rebellion her imprisoned cousin may foment. Or you could be the walking political disaster, the Romantic lover from north of the border, that was Mary. Sheer luck can bring glory or your head on the block. But even then it’s never that simple.
Because what resonates and develops throughout the three-hour show is the emotional point that the two women, who spend most of the play in simple white shirt and velvet trousers, have a lot more in common than first appears or history may tell you. “I am you,” Mary says at one point and as the political gamesmanship plays out, these hidden parallels, between two supposedly very different women in very different situations, evoke the profound human complexity of their stories. Kingship, or rather Queenship, is a prison whoever you are.
On our night it was Lia Williams who called Heads, meaning that she played Elizabeth I, a role she imbued with majesty and a real sense of her frantic fears. Behind the imposing, finger-clicking façade of a woman who simply has to hold out a cigarette to get it lit by her courtiers is a needy, desperate, highly sexual person unsure of who loves her, just as terrified of the prison of her situation as Mary.
She faces assassination plots from every corner and has to combat her slippery advisors: John Light’s tricky Leicester is never quite as he seems, something that could also be said even of the smooth-talking loyalist Burleigh (Elliot Levey), a man who relentlessly pushes his own agenda in a manner which would put modern politicians to shame.
Stevenson’s Mary is obviously mired in a real prison, but the astonishing thing is how she becomes freer and more level-headed as the moment of her execution draws nearer.
What is also remarkable about this production, which has just transferred from the Almeida Theatre to the West End, is how the momentum and tension never let up – right down to a beautiful final tableau when Elizabeth finally dons the fabulous clothes of her office and all those fabulous portraits and Mary heads to her fate in a simple white slip. As a final, visual representation of the pared-down confidence of this powerful show, it’s hard to beat.
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news