Review: Mary Stuart by Austin Shakespeare
by Michael Meigs

Mary Stuart in Austin Shakespeare's staging at the Rollins Theatre provides a powerful, cathartic experience for the spectator. Schiller's drama gives us two sixteenth-century queens, each with a claim to the English throne, wrapped in tangled interests of state and church, trapped together like scorpions in a bottle and surrounded by plotters, counselors, and mendacity. 

This Mary Stuart plays like Shakespeare, with actors in stylized Elizabethan garb moving in a long court laid between ranks of spectators. Director Ann Ciccolella assembled a cast worthy of the aim, none more so than Helen Merino as the imprisoned Mary Stuart and Pamela Christian as Elizabeth I. The confrontation between them in the mid-point of the action is epic, a careful duet of encounter, reason, flaring passion and, ultimately, disaster for the prisoner disguised as triumph .

The images and intrigues suggest that Shakespeare could have written this text.

Pamela Christian, Helen Merino (photo: Kimberley Mead)Except, of course, he could never have touched this subject. These events were hot, recent realities in Shakespeare's time. He wrote and performed his first plays five years or less after Mary Stuart's execution in 1587, which occurred the same year as the publication of Holinshed's Chronicles, a major source for his plays. Shakespeare flourished under Elizabeth's reign, but the second half of his career was under the reign of James I, the son of Mary Stuart.

There's a lot of background and history in this piece, virtually all of which takes place off stage. Schiller is remarkably adept in giving you a sense of it, including the scandals and sins of Mary's youth, Catholic plots against Elizabeth the Protestant queen, the formal hearing and trial of Mary Stuart by 42 peers of the realm, the machinations and courting of Elizabeth by the French royal family, the conflicting advice to Elizabeth once Mary had been convicted, and Elizabeth's ambiguous instructions once she had signed the death warrant. 

You could study all that. Or you could go with the action, which alternates between Mary in her prison and Elizabeth at the court, equally a prison.  

The events we witness occur over the span of a few days. Though based on the historical record, Schiller's piece is one of high romantic concept. Mary freely acknowledges and regrets the sins of her youth; she moves inevitably through defiance and desperation to eventual exalted acceptance of her fate. Elizabeth is strong and wily but menaced throughout -- by Mary's existence and blood claim to the throne; by men foreign and domestic who aspire to become her husband; by the unpredictable people and mob; and by the potential blood guilt implicit in the exercise of power. 

The confrontation between the two is a Romantic's dream, a formal dance of danger involving high sentiment, themes of justice, and diametrically opposed interests. There's no trace of such a meeting in the historical record; Schiller imagined it whole, a scene between an Elizabeth about 30 years old and a Mary 25 years of age. In fact, Elizabeth kept Mary imprisoned for 19 years. Elizabeth was 53 and Mary was 45 when the ax fell. Though Mary repeatedly addresses Elizabeth as "sister," to great dramatic effect, the two were cousins, two generations removed.

Elizabeth, Mortimer (Sean Martin)(photo: Kimberley Mead)Schiller wrote to Goethe during his work on Mary Stuar tthat he had gotten "fed up with soldiers, heroes and rulers" (typical of his early 'Sturm und Drang' work). "My inclination and needs attract me to something freely imagined and not historic, matters that are purely passionate and human." For the unjustly imprisoned Mary Stuart he provides an unwanted renegade admirer, the purely imaginary Sir Edward Mortimer (Sean Martin) who deceives Elizabeth, plans a bloody raid to free the prisoner and is so overcome with lust that he panics Mary with unwanted attentions. Martin plays this character with a stalwart intensity that overcomes entirely the improbabilities of his described conversion, passions and spectacular end.


Dirk Van Allen as Shrewsbury (photo: Kimberley Mead)

With similar intent, Schiller reforged the historical figure of Elizabeth's favorite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, casting him as a jilted coward playing false with his queen and lusting after Mary's beauty and purity. Scott Daigle as Leicester is a man caught in an impossible situation, exposed by mischance, saved by his lying quickness and, ultimately, suffering the losses merited by his duplicity.


Counselors and consolers abound, each of them sharply etched. Aaron Black with a passing fair French accent as Count Aubespine; David J. Boss, who shrives Mary Stuart in the fifth-act communion scene that scandalized many of Schiller's contemporaries; Tom Green as Davison, cruelly exploited and abused by Elizabeth regarding the signed order of execution; Karen Jambon as Mary's sole serving woman, unloading a whole lot of exposition in Act I with clarity, concern and grace; Ian Scott as the straight-to-the-finish counselor Lord Burleigh; Dirk Van Allen as Shrewsbury, the agéd voice of conscience; and more.

David J. Boss, Helen Merino (photo: Kimberley Mead)
But this evening in that haunting space belongs entirely to the queens. Helen Merino as Mary Stuart and Pamela Christian as Elizabeth are foes and yet so alike -- as Schiller reminds us when Elizabeth snaps bitterly at the kneeling Mary, "I could have easily been in your place." These actresses convey different versions, equally valid, of female power. Mary Stuart is the vulnerable, flawed human soul, moving to piety and penitence, burned clean by sacrifice and resignation; Elizabeth is the steel intellect with bruised heart, banishing her own frailty in order to grasp the razor'd controls of power.

A note on the text. Peter Oswald is credited as translator -- true, certainly -- but in fact he has transformed Schiller's text from highly accomplished and mannered German blank verse into a sinewy twentieth-century acting version of the play. It's noticeably shorter than Schiller's lengthy original but preserves all major incidents, character, images and speeches.

To give you a vague notion: Schiller's earlier "Wallenstein" trilogy was translated into English by the poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Schiller was a contemporary of Shelley and Byron. The first English translation by Joseph Mellish, a friend of Schiller, pretty faithfully rendered the opening of one of Elizabeth's key monologues(*) thus:

Oh! servitude of popularity!
Disgraceful slavery! How weary am I
Of flattering this idol, which my soul
Despises in its inmost depth! Oh! when
Shall I once more be free upon this throne?
I must respect the people's voice, and strive
To win the favor of the multitude,
And please the fancies of a mob, whom naught
But jugglers' tricks delight. O call not him
A king who needs must please the world: 'tis he
Alone, who in his actions does not heed
The fickle approbation of mankind.


Ian Scott, Pamela Christian (photo: Kimberley Mead)

I don't have Oswald's text before me, but I can assure you on the basis of Ann Ciccolella's staging of it that Oswald stripped away the preciousness of Romantic phrasing and turned Schiller's play into prose and verse that keep the action pounding.

(*) In the original:

(Elisabeth (allein)

O Sklaverei des Volksdiensts! Schmähliche
Knechtschaft - Wie bin ich's müde, diesem Götzen
Zu Schmeicheln, den mein Innerstes verachtet!
Wann Soll ich frei auf diesem Throne stehn!
Die Meinung muss ich ehren, um das Lob
Der Menge buhlen, einem Pöbel muss ich's
Recht machen, dem der Gaukler nur gefällt.
Oh, der ist nicht König, der der Welt
Gefallen muss! Nur der ist's, der bei senem Tun
Nach keines Menschen Beifall braucht zu fragen.


Review by Clare Carnavan at Statesman A360 "Seeing Things" blog, February 11

Unsigned review at AustinOnStage, February 11

Review by Layne Lynch for Daily Texan, February 15

Review by Emily Carter of the "A-Team" at the Greater Austin Creative Alliance, February 17

Review by Bastion Carboni at, February 17

Review by Ryan E. Johnson at, February 23

Review by Barry Pineo for the Austin Chronicle, February 25

Review by webmaster at AUSTINTHEATRE@yahoogroups, February 25

KUT's feature by Julie Moody with Helen Merino, Pamela Christian, Ann Ciccolella, with dialogue from the production, February 17




Click to view program for Mary Stuart by Austin Shakespeare


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Mary Stuart
by Friedrich Schiller, adapted by Peter Oswald
Austin Shakespeare

February 11 - February 28, 2010
Rollins Theatre
Long Center
701 Riverside at South First,
Austin, TX, 78704