Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller, in a version by David Harrower

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Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller, in a version by David Harrower, adapted by Robin Brooks.  Dir. Gaynor MacFarlane.  Perf. Meg Fraser, Alexandra Mathie, Robin Laing.  BBC Radio 3, 4 Jan. 2015.

BBCiPlayer till 3 Feb. 2015.


In this gripping revival, first broadcast in 2012, Schiller’s classic was transformed into a political drama that forced us to consider the ways in which the stresses and strains of being a leader of any territory often forces individuals into making decisions that they don’t want.


The action unfolded with a minimum of sound-effects: our attention was solely focused on the dialogue which in David Harrower’s version was constructed as a series of one, two or three-person exchanges.  This structure conjured up an atmosphere of intrigue in which Mary Stuart (Meg Fraser) and Queen Elizabeth (Alexandra Mathie) called upon their various male allies to help further their respective causes.  Mary Stuart wanted to secure her release from captivity and claim what she perceived as her right to the English throne, while Elizabeth tried her best to remove Mary Stuart from the scene altogether.


The only problem facing both female protagonists was that they could not trust anyone of their associates to carry out their wishes.  Nobles such as the Earl of Leicester (Robin Laing) might profess loyalty to one side or another, but it was clear from MacFarlane’s production that they were solely out for what they could get.  If one side offered more advantages, they would willingly switch their allegiance.  This strategy helped to underline the contemporaneity of Schiller’s subject-matter; the action might have been set in Tudor England, but the attitudes expressed were precisely those that influence many of today’s Parliamentarians as they choose to leave one political party and pledge their allegiance to another in the hope of securing advancement (witness the ways in which some Conservative MPs in Britain have switched to UKIP).


In this kind of hothouse environment, reminiscent of a nest of vipers, both Mary and Elizabeth had their work cut out trying to assert their independence.  Mary Stuart seemed to have an easier task; as a monarch she had been wrongfully imprisoned, and she had every right to exercise her authority.  As portrayed by Fraser, however, she came across as an impetuous personality who frequently let her heart rule her head, especially in her exchanges with the Queen.  Even if she had assumed the monarchical role, it was clear that she lacked the personality to exercise control over the court.


By contrast Elizabeth seemed much more suited to the job.  Although aware of her doubtful origins (she never quite forgave the way in which Henry VIII had raised her), she had sufficient presence of mind to keep her courtiers under control, partly through vocal strength, and partly through sheer force of personality.  On the other hand MacFarlane emphasized how difficult her role actually was; in a context where absolute power seemed to be the only form of control, Elizabeth was often forced into making decisions that she did not actually want.  This was especially true at the end of the production, where Mary Tudor’s execution took place as a result of a misunderstanding between Elizabeth and her courtiers.

Listening to the often powerful exchanges between the two female protagonists, we were invited to reflect on the relationship between power and gender – should female rulers adopt different rhetorical and governmental strategies to assert their authority compared to their male counterparts?  MacFarlane’s production refused to provide a clear answer: whereas Elizabeth came across as a strong leader, she was often prone to pangs of guilt either before or after her decisions had been made.  Likewise Mary Stuart tried to maintain an aggressive fašade, but we were never sure whether this was part of her basic character.  In a recent book The Myth of the Strong Leader (2014) Archie Brown has argued with some justification that the truly strong ruler is the person who consults with their subordinates and comes to a collective decision, rather than making snap judgments on their own.  Fine words indeed; but MacFarlane showed that in some socio-historical contexts this form of government was impossible to achieve, especially for female rulers trying to rule male-dominated courts.  Through the skillful use of asides addressed direct to listeners, Elizabeth often doubted herself, but she could never admit this in public.


Written in a sparse yet highly accessible idiom, this revival proved why Mary Stuart remains one of the most acute political plays written for the European theatre.