I braved ice and snow to see the performance at the Folger the weekend it closed, and it was well worth every second.
Coming in at the end of a run, my fear is that the actors will be getting complacent, less full of nervous opening night energy. While nervous energy may have been at a low point, finesse and skill were not. Nearly every cast member, and especially the primary two, channeled their character. Instead of depleting energy, the time spent in their roles seemed to have enriched their portrayals.
When I saw Kate Eastwood Norris, I felt Mary Stuart as Friedrich Schiller envisioned her. Her carriage, her hands, her very spirit oozed of this peculiar and complex character, who is both spiritual and martyrlike, and yet vain, proud, self-righteous, perversely courageous. Likewise, while not quite embodying the spirit of Elizabeth (sidenote: I have spent years of my life studying Elizabeth I, so I have my own very particular conception of her), Holly Twyford kills with imperial posture, fidgety long fingers, and a slightly nasal commanding tone. Cody Nickell as the Earl of Leicester had a palpable presence without saying a word in the first scene he's in. His character is one of the most difficult in the play, I think, and the easiest for the audience to dislike, but he played it to a goofy yet profound perfection.
All of the primary players, in fact, have much to dislike about them. It's one of the geniuses of the play. There are a few secondary characters who are literally straight men, the Earl of Shrewsbury and Sir Amias Paulet, but their characters shine only because they present a contrast to the rest of the cast. Lord Burleigh is presented as mostly villainous, everyone recognizes that he's looking out for the good of the state, but no one excuses him for it. However, the main characters, who I'll restrict to Mary, Elizabeth, Leicester, and Mortimer, are vastly complex. Leicester is the only one who really plays both sides onstage, so he is easiest to dislike, but all four are major deceivers, intriguers, and cowards. Mary rises above the last with her apotheosis at the end, but the fact remains that there is no clear moral winner in this play.
But, the play is about Mary Stuart's martyrdom, right? That's clearly what the adapter of the script, Peter Oswald, and the director of this production, Richard Clifford, think. The director writes in his note that, at the end of the play, Mary has risen in moral authority, while Elizabeth has fallen. I don't see it that way.
The play offers sympathy to Mary, a character who is elsewhere often vilified, and perhaps a harsher than usual treatment of Elizabeth, but essentially it comes down to the point that either queen has the right to rule. Either one of them could be sitting on the throne, and either one of them could be going to her death on the block. Neither queen is able to erase the other, or able to erase where her fate has brought her.
The confrontation between the two queens is key: Mary tries to act penitent, but cannot help showing that she thinks she has done no wrong. Elizabeth also, though she has come in the name of mercy, cannot resist showing off her power and insulting Mary's low state. Neither queen can overcome her desire to "win" over the other. The supposedly saintlike Mary boasts of this "victory" she has over Elizabeth, when her speech causes the other queen to leave in a huff. Finally, Elizabeth says, "Force is my only surety. No alliance can be concluded with a race of vipers." This attitude, throughout humanity, is responsible for so many conflicts historically and today. The fear of what the other will do spurs us on to deeds we know are unconscionable.
The tragedy of Mary Stuart is that it is a zero-sum game. The stakes are such that one has to win and one has to die. The Earl of Shrewsbury's line to Elizabeth after Mary's death is given much weight in this adaptation: "There is nothing left to fear. Or respect." He implies that there was a choice, and Elizabeth failed. If she did, she failed no more than Mary, or nearly any other human being, would have in her place. Fear trumps respect. That doesn't mean it should. But this is the reality of Mary Stuart, and the reality of our times.