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Mary Stuart

Schiller’s MARY STUART. In a new version by Peter Oswald. Presented by the Ensemble Theatre.

Arguably, five great classics of the repertory were promised this year in Sydney. The Bell Shakespeare presented HAMLET. The ANTIGONE at Belvoir. THE WOMEN OF TROY at the Sydney Theatre Company. The Ensemble Theatre as part of its celebratory 50th Anniversary Season offered DEATH OF A SALESMAN (Arthur Miller), and now the great German play Friedrich Schiller’s MARY STUART in a new version by Peter Oswald. This acclaimed version was premiered at the Donmar Warehouse in 2005. Peter Oswald is a verse dramatist himself and has written this new version in a mixture of prose and poetry.

MARY STUART is a surprising choice for the Ensemble Company in its 50th Anniversary Year, but I was very pleased to have the opportunity to see it. Verse drama has only once appeared in this company’s repertoire. In their 50 year history HAMLET is the exception. I cannot even remember Mary Stuart been presented in Sydney before. (The last time I saw it was a few years ago at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco.) So this is a very innovative offer from the Ensemble Company. Looking at the biography of the Director, Mark Kilmurry, (other work has included HAMLET, CYRANO DE BERGERAC) one can detect he has a bent for this kind of play or perhaps it was the opportunity of working with an Internationally acclaimed actress, Greta Scacchi, and finding a role that would sustain and challenge her (a brave choice considering that the World’s present international Elizabeth [much lauded] lives in Hunter’s Hill!!!)

I am sorry to report that this production of this great play is not very good at all. The director is surely responsible for the conception of this production, design and casting. The Company has approved it. (Look at my lament about the Bell HAMLET production.)

Greta Scacchi makes a fair fist of her role as Elizabeth and has prepared herself vocally and physically for the demand of the text and its style, even if played in such a small space as the three sided Ensemble room. Ms Scacchi’s use of the language, verse and the drama inherent in it, is imaginatively engaged, detailed and thought through. There is narrative, drama and wit. It has a variety of action in the textual usage that is easy to identify with. The physical life has a set of iconic gestures that behove a Queen and give the required status to the characterisation. The dilemma of a ruler is precisely delineated, and given the less than useful offers of the other actors to develop the complexities of the role, Ms Scacchi gives her audience a definitive place to empathise. In this production, the play is hers. I have always thought that this role, Elizabeth, of the two Queens, is the better role to attempt to solve. If you look to Donizetti’s MARIA STUARDA or Benjamin Britten’s GLORIANNA, you will see that they tend to agree. “Although ostensibly the tragedy of Mary, the truly tragic figure is Elizabeth. While Mary rises to a state of serenity, detached from the uncertainties and yearnings of life, Elizabeth is forced to commit judicial murder by the political pressures she lives under and ends utterly isolated on her throne, condemned to live on in the real world of politics.”

Of the other actors that I felt achieved some level of commendable communication, Daniel Mitchell, as Burleigh, gives impetus and urgency to his work. Ben Ager, as Paulet, attempts a rounded and sympathetic portrayal, as does Julie Hudspeth as Hanna Kennedy, the nurse to Mary. Their textual attack is clean and unadorned with emotional baggage. Clarity of narrative intent, allowing us to endow the emotional life instead of having it exhibited to us. The text is primary. The feelings are secondary. Bravo!

Kate Raison, as Mary Stuart, seems to me way out of her depth. The lack of vocal colour and support from her very first speech “Hanna control yourself. What’s happened?” causes one to have misgivings about what is to follow. But then, in her second speech, “Hanna the jewels did not make the queen. Calm down………..” when the spoken word “calm” has such a broadly composed Australian vowel, one heart sinks. (Let alone the “i” sound in words like “night” and much else) I was jettisoned from the suspension of my disbelief immediately. I began to muse that maybe this is the production being rehearsed at the Women’s Convict Prison on the Penrith plains of the colony, as a sequel to The STC’s present production of THE CONVICT OPERA. So distracted was I by the sounds coming from Ms Raison, rather than try to stay with the events unfolding I began to puzzle over the choice of the dialect. “It is not English” I thought. “It is not French.” “After all Mary was educated in France, (and the director permits Alan Dukes to attempt a French sound [poorly] for his impersonation of Bellievre, why not encourage Kate Raison to do the same.)” “It is stridently Australian.” “Surely”, I carped to myself, “Dialect is just a skill. It can be learnt.” (Albeit at some real effort.) Hmmmmmm!!! Physically, the choices are naturalistic and seem to be that of the actress attempting to express the logic of her text by conducting us through it with illustratively, pointed fingers. But worse, she tends to gabble emotionally over her text. There is no argued logic from this Queen, rather an outpouring of generalised, romanticised emotional states. The balance of the play is lost. Greta Scacchi, carefully and wittily guides us through her material and in reply, from Ms Raison, there is only a scattergun of emotional excess. The fact that Ms Raison and her director has (a small detail) permitted this queen to be barefooted throughout the majority of her responsibility (the meeting of the two Queens at Fotheringhay, and later in the ultimate scene leading to her execution) suggests a naturalistic diminishing of the status of this royal personage to fit the life and size of this rather contemporary Australian actress. Ms Raison has some intelligence and certainly the instincts and obviously the ambition for this role but does not have, on the performance I attended, the necessary skills for this much famed role in this much famed play, (first penned in 1800) that requires a kind of acting style and vocal and physical discipline that is not met by this actress. If there is no believable Mary in MARY STUART there is no drama and there is, alas, almost no play.

The other actors in this production do not offer any stature to their text or characters, generally. Jonathan Prescott, in the best of the male roles in the play, Mortimer, throws away every one of his opportunities in a pell-mell of exigent emotion. His declaration of love to Mary after the meeting of the two queens in the third act was so exasperatingly hysterical that one could not follow what was happening as indicated by the words of Mr Oswald/Schiller. We grasped his state by a demonstration of physical action, a rush on stage, with his coat undone to reveal a naked upper torso (almost causing laughter, at its obvious intention of communication, from some of the audience. Note, he took his curtain call dressed, with the under shirt on, so it was a choice). In the text Mr Oswald indicates “His whole appearance suggests a strong, passionate mood”, later “Looking at her with glowing eyes”, later again “With unsteady look, indicating quiet madness” and later still “Approaching her with open arms”. Twice Mr Oswald indicates that Mary avoids him by “Stepping back.” Not, “Lay back and roll on the ground.” But what we witness, is an actor literally rolling with the Queen of Scotland on the ground in a rapacious urge. It is too ridiculous to believe, in the context of the life of the play and who these people are. However, it is indicative of the careless direction to the text by Mr Kilmurry throughout the performance. This may have been a suitable improvisation in the rehearsal stages of the work, to discover the boundaries of possibilities, but once investigated the “Given Circumstances” of the period and manners of the world of the play should have been taken into consideration. Goodness knows what the spirit of Mr Hayes Gordon is making of this work in the auditorium named in his honour.

Mr Dukes, given the very demanding task of impersonating four characters (almost asking a super human feat) makes the wearing of spectacles a delineation for one of his people. The choice is poor. Where were the Director and Designer to help? The role of Davidson was trivialised in this production and in the dramatic construct of the piece, Davidson is pivotal to the revealing of Elizabeth’s machinations and predicament, Mr Dukes flounders in his overall responsibility through no real fault of his own. Mr Dickson, as Dudley, Lord Leicester, appeared tired. Mr Ross as Talbot, perfunctory. Both thumb nail sketches. Functions, not people with things at stake, in a great world of importance to the destiny of world events. Distressingly disappointing. Here is where the greatness of the play lies. All the characters have much at stake. The decisions these characters make will affect world events, profoundly, and every one of them have the possibility to create a different direction for the fate of the world to move in. ALL the characters have the possibility to move and shake the world. There are very few “Functionaries” here in this world as Schiller/Oswald have written. And yet Mr Kilmurry has not urged that from his players.

This is indulgent work at the expense of the playwrights, and then subsequently to the audience’s appreciation as to why this text is regarded so highly in the world of Great Theatre tradition. Just to ask these two questions (there are many others) of Mr Kilmurry: What are the “politics” that are being debated? (Themes etc). What is the poetry as explicated by Mr Oswald of Schiller’s original work? This, you will not have an opportunity to experience in this production. It is simply an emotional, quasi-romantic response to the great story and myths around these two queens and history. Absolutely no intellectual rigour or guidance for his actors based on a close dramaturgical reading of the play.

The Set design (Nicholas Dare) has a large black wall, framed by two curving bricked arches. On these walls are three burning contemporary looking torches. The floor, which ,depending where you are seated is of some visual importance, is a poorly painted pattern of a wooden/stone floor. The Lighting (Nicholas Higgins) is pragmatic and lacks any imaginative atmospherics of any invention. The sound (Daryl Wallis) has, once again depending where you are seated, an over emphatic drone with some mood and atmospheric offers to guide us to the emotions one should be feeling in the scene, much like the old Warner Brother’s scores to their films of the forties. (THE VIRGIN QUEEN.) The costumes (Julie Lynch) are dominated by a wonderful creation for Elizabeth (Greta Scacchi). It is impressive. However, it looks as if the rest of the cast had no budget left to dress them. Mostly graded in black, the designs are not useful if they were meant to support the drama. The Costume for Mr Prescott is simple in its execution but has a crazy decorated ribbon about his thigh, that no matter how authentic its origins may have been, is simply risible. Mr Mitchell struggles to gives a believable performance in the costume he is asked to wear, and it speaks volumes of his general success, because his costume looks as if he were in an ill fitting dressing gown, accessorised with some paltry decoration, from a pantomime, and a fob watch, suitable for a down at heel aristocrat from the novels of Dickens, rather than the court of Elizabeth the First.

All of the above artists have responded to the vision of Mr Kilmurry. So, I must hold him responsible for what I see on stage and trust (unfortunately) that everything we have paid to witness is the result of a considered choice from this Director and Producing Company. The look of this work takes me back to the halcyon days of the sixties when the theatre opportunities for an audience in Sydney were either at the Independent Theatre, The Ensemble Theatre, The New Theatre or the Genesian Theatre. The Old Tote still in its first faltering steps. The Genesian Theatre (which still functions down there 420 Kent Street) did its productions as keen amateurs with sets and costumes, lighting and sound in a completely inventive and often anachronistic embarrassment of inventive poverty. I am reminded of those “glorious” days from what Mr Kilmurry has allowed on stage Fusty. Fusty. Fusty. Now, as the Ensemble Company has reached to such an ambitious scale as to choose to do this play to celebrate its 50 years of history, (way out of its usual character) it ought to take into account the minimum necessities to do this play well, for a contemporary audience in 2008. The decision is simple. Can we do this play well? Or do we choose something else? More money or a different vision of it? A different venue as with THE DEATH OFA SALESMAN? Or a different play?

When one looks at the Ensemble season for 2009 of ten plays, one is struck that Mr Kilmurry is directing three of the productions, in fact the first three, and then has also written and will direct another and also star in a fifth. Half of this company’s season!!!!! Half of the season !!!!!! One hopes the investment that the Ensemble has made in this talent will be rewarded with a more considered effort then MARY STUART.

This play is worth attending, just to hear it out loud, and although, based on my experience of this production, I cannot recommend a great night in the theatre, you will be able to see the glimmering of a great work and why it is held in such high regard internationally and attracts the talents of actresses of the calibre of Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter (The two Queens in the original Oswald production in 2005). You will also have the opportunity of seeing Ms Scacchi, live, in a brave and considered piece of artistry, at work, despite most else.

I need to state that I saw this production in preview. I would be interested to know what changes may have evolved over the preview season. Let me know.

Playing now until 6 December. Book online or call 02 9929 0644.