Performing Arts
© Mike Keenan

Mary Stuart - Politics and Religion, a combustible mix at Stratford!
Mary Stuart cast, photo by Don Dixon

Antoni Cimolino in the Mary Stuart program's "Director's Notes" introduces the historic play thus: "Here is a story about religious extremism, fanatics willing to die for their God, gender politics and a society struggling to find its way to democracy."

Does this sound familiar? It should, because what happened 200 years ago continues today in Egypt, Syria, Iran and wider regions, because as Cimolino observes, politics uses religion for its own end. In present day Québec, Premier Pauline Marois is utilizing a "Charter of Values," a political ploy steeped in religious paranoia that might provide her struggling separatist party with a desired majority.

This play features two commanding women, Mary Stuart, former Queen of Scots, imprisoned in England, where her very existence poses a threat, both personal and political, to her Protestant cousin, Elizabeth I. As Elizabeth hesitates over decreeing her rival's fate, Mary pleads for a face-to-face meeting, a meeting that actually never took place , but in Stratford the two women collide like the two top Super Bowl teams.

Cimolino continues: "He (the German author, Schiller) was also a historian and dramatist, seized by the tragic potential of a story in which the protagonists are not men, as in his other works, but two queens. Here was an insoluble situation: Elizabeth had imprisoned her cousin Mary, whose claim to the throne exposed the flaw in her own. The stakes were life and death. The two women never met, despite Mary's many letters imploring Elizabeth to speak to her personally. Schiller's inspiration was to envision and write the meeting that never happened, and place it at a critical moment between Mary's sentence and her execution - a time of maximum stress and dramatic potential.

"The gender politics of the time made the situation even more excruciating for the two women. The idea that there could be a successful female monarch - an idea that would gain credibility only from Elizabeth's long reign - was then unthinkable."

In the face-off between the two dominant women, Cimolino affords them the opportunity to tell it like it is , unleash their rage with this untenable situation and their inability to trust. Seana McKenna dazzles with a spellbinding portrayal of Elizabeth versus Lucy Peacock 's equally superb rendition of the stubborn Stuart. It's a joy to watch Stratford's two principal female stars sharing the same stage.

"These two queens are themselves being manipulated in a male-dominated society," says Cimolino. "We see them positioned as religious icons: one as Mary Magdalene, the other as the Virgin Mary. We see politicians making cynical and dispassionate use of religious fanaticism to advance what they consider to be the national interest."

"You wonder how much things have changed in that regard. We meet a character in this play who is willing to commit heinous crimes for the sake of religion, and he justifies it to himself by saying that, because he has taken confession and been absolved, it's not a sin. This is the thinking of a suicide bomber."

"I think the point Schiller is making is that it is human to become intolerant - and even to take a force for good, like religion, and twist it. It's not that you doubt the belief of the people who believe; you just doubt the aims of the people who are telling them who their enemies are and what to do."

McKenna adroitly employs charm and malice to deal with both court advisors and fawning admirers, but she fears what message she sends, a queen executing a queen, worrying that it might provoke Catholics to rebel for a martyred Mary, imprisoned in Fotheringhay Castle for 19 years before Mary issued the order for her beheading.

Ben Carlson as Lord Burleigh, Brian Dennehy as the Earl of Shrewsbury, Geraint Wyn Davies as the Earl of Leicester make a strong cast of "realpolitic" type advisors, Carlson quite Draconian, the others less bloody-minded, each quite gifted in their supporting roles.

Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller in a new version by Peter Oswald and directed by Antoni Cimolino plays at the Tom Patterson Theatre until October 19.

Stratford Festival:

Ben Carlson as Lord Burleigh, photo by Don Dixon  Brian Dennehy as Earl of Shrewsbury, photo by Don Dixon  James Blendick as Amias Paulet in Mary Stuart. Photo by David Hou  Seana McKenna as Mary, Lucy Peacock as Elizabeth, photo by Don Dixon  Seana McKenna, Elizabeth, Peter Hutt, Aubespine, Dylan Trowbridge, William Davison, Brian Dennehy, Earl of Shrewsbury, Geraint Wyn Davies, photo by Don Dixon

Seana McKenna and Lucy Peacock, photo by Don Dixon

Mary Stuart | "To die unmarried" | Stratford Festival 2013

Mary Stuart | "Justice is not the question" | Stratford Festival 2013

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