Tuesday, 11 December 2018

When they were queens: this rumble in the royal court is compelling theatre

Two 'women kings' one facing the scaffold, the other all-powerful, meet face to face in a compelling play being brought to the stage by Henley director Hedda Bird

Two 'women kings' one facing the scaffold, the other all-powerful, meet face to face in a compelling play being brought to the stage by Henley director Hedda Bird.

Tudor history, always red in tooth and claw, has never been more popular and playwright Peter Oswald's retelling of Friedrich Schiller's masterpiece focuses on two of its most powerful figures: Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary awaits her execution, alone and imprisoned, praying for a reprieve. Alive, she may have a claim to the throne. Elizabeth must sign the death warrant, or risk setting a dangerous precedent, yet she prevaricates.

This retelling of the private and personal battles of two commanding women explores the nature of power and the prices paid for love and freedom.

Amateur company Oxford Theatre Guild are in final rehearsals for

Mary Stuart
, which will be at The Oxford Playhouse from Tuesday, March 10.

â??Itâ??s an amazing play and rehearsals are going fantastically wellâ?�, said Hedda. â??We have very good people playing every part. The main roles are great for more mature women; they need poise, strength and confidence.

â??Itâ??s about people facing up to choices; who they are, the decisions they have made, remorse and regrets.â?�

Most of the incidents in the play are historical fact, Schiller adding the showdown between Mary and Elizabeth because, well, it would have been mad not to.

Perhaps surprisingly, it is Mary who proves the strong one. â??Mary has nothing to loseâ?�, said Hedda. â??At the end, she is released to be the person she wants to be. They have both had power and had cards to play, but may not have always played them wisely.â?�

The strong female roles are one of the reasons Hedda chose the play for her first production at the Playhouse. â??Most stories from the times are related through the eyes of Henry VIIIâ?�, she said. â??In

Mary Stuart
we see through the eyes of both women; they have two acts each and share an act.

â??They were bloody times; and they were both extraordinarily brave, strong women. Schiller wrote his original version of

Mary Stuart
in 1801 and his ideas about women are surprisingly modern.â?�

The sumptuousness of the Tudor court and Germanic industrialism are combined in the gorgeous costumes. â??Traditional with a modern twistâ?�, said Hedda.

The blues and silvers in Elizabethâ??s royal robes give a metallic, hard-edged feel. She is almost literally a wall of steel, her ruff edged with cogs, while Maryâ??s softer greens and rusts reflect her more passionate nature.

There are men in the 15-strong cast, including Heddaâ??s husband Simon Vail, who plays Lord Talbot. â??After being busy raising three children itâ??s lovely to have time to work togetherâ?�, said Hedda, who has also run a training company in Henley for 20 years and was previously artistic director at Wokingham Theatre.

Rehearsals are intensifying and the theatre company will have just two days to prepare the stage before opening night.

The ultimate fate of Mary is no secret, so does that affect the suspense? Not a bit, said Hedda.

â??Even though you know the ending, that does not relieve the tension that keeps building as Maryâ??s execution looms closer. The play is about the journey.â?�

Mary Stuart will be performed at Oxford Playhouse from Tuesday, 10 to Saturday March 14. Tickets start from £11. Box office 01865 305305 or www.oxfordplayhouse.com

Fiona Hannon

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