Photo: Futoshi Sakauchi
Freemasons Hall, Dublin
July 30-Aug 10
My review of Mary Stuart - Queen of Scots by Friedrich Schiller coming up just as soon as I place a weighty responsibility in fumbling hands ...
"There's something about Mary", pondered the people of Scotland in the middle sixteenth century.
Their queen had married Lord Darnley, a man of good Catholic faith and a contender for the English throne. Unfortunately for Mary, he was a rubbish husband, and when she swiftly marries again after Darnley dies in a suspicious explosion, many eyes turn to the newlyweds and sense a conspiracy.
Surrounded by enemies on all sides, Mary flees to England to what she thinks is the protection of one queen from another. This puts cousin Elizabeth in a tricky position. The English monarch has restored the country to its Protestant faith, prompting hostility from Rome and Spain, and here was Mary - a younger queen with the eloquence to rally Catholic armies to her doorstep.
So she locks her up.
The Freemasons Hall brings an air of secret proceedings - a fitting location for Pageant Wagon's production of Friedrich Schiller's play from 1800 on the matter. You pass by the library (which includes ancient editions of seminal religious texts, as well as modern titles such as 'Who's Afraid of Freemasons?' and the Dan Brown novels), notice boards (knight conferrings are in October), stain glass windows depicting Henry V and several dukes and lords, until arriving in the main hall where the performance takes place.
The action plays out on a checkered carpet, as queens and counsel move like chess pieces in a play of scheming and courtly sparring. After all, counter-intelligence was practically invented in this period. Director Liam Halligan keeps the movement fluid, as actors are never stationed too long so as to be blocked from the audience sitting on the opposite side. Organ music fills the hall, played by a sprucely-dressed page. Christiane O'Mahony is lively and sweet-spoken as the entrapped queen of Scots, and Matthew Ralli and Neill Flemming side-step and charm as the nimble lords.
Aenne Barr's Elizabeth is the real gem here. She sits high on her throne, donning the queen's famous golden curly locks, wearing an elegant gown from Sinéad Cuthbert's exquisite costume collection. When she steps down to enter the play we find her subtle, showing little moments of victory and defeat, towering when triumphant and shaken to her core when struck. It's a performance befitting a queen because it shows that queens, behind crowns and scepters, are proudly human.
The play isn't historically accurate but it doesn't claim to be either. Sources site Mary Stuart as a highly sexed woman, and even when meeting her death she disrobed her black and white robes to reveal a crimson dress. Going in this direction may have added some fire to O'Mahony's performance, who performs in a sweet pitch throughout but hardly strays from the one note.
One of the rewards of Schiller's dramatisation is to bring both queens face-to-face - which, in reality, never happened. Through the invented character Mortimer, the imprisoned Mary relays a letter to the Earl of Leicester who arranges for her to cross Elizabeth on her hunting route through a park.
It's a moment perfectly measured by Halligan, as the room drops silent with tension. Mary kneels to the ground and pleads to her cousin: "Stretch forth your royal hand, to raise your sister from the depths of her distress". "You are where it becomes you, Lady Stuart", retorts the other queen.
Elizabeth viciously humiliates the Queen of Scots, kicking her until she's conquered. But when backed into a corner, Mary Stuart retaliates with her own wounding words: "If right prevailed, you now would in the dust before me lie, for I'm your rightful monarch!".
What does Schiller's presentation of Mary Stuart suggest? When she first meets Mortimer, he voices his affections for her according to his disdain for Protestantism: "the glimmering light of reason serves but to lead us to eternal error". It's sounds like a lyric from Schiller's own song sheet as a Romantic rebelling against the Enlightenment, with its primacy of rationality and scientific measurement of human experience.
Schiller writes here in a way that aligns characters' motives with spirituality rather than philosophy. The legacy of the Romantic aesthetic was to invigorate a sense of nationalism. In 1800, German-speaking Europe was splintered into 300 states, with a unification process underway. Thus, Schiller's own scheme may have been to present the figure of Mary Stuart to German audiences as a parable - a leader and inspiration with the power to instill a unified national identity.
But to an Irish audience today, this rarely-seen work is no less a thrill. Letting loose sparkling passages from Schiller's script, Pageant Wagon's glamorous and chiming production is a discovery of a powerful play in a mysterious venue.
What did everybody else think?