This year, a small section of the bloggerati embarked on what Kari would call ‘The Summer of Harriet Walter.’ Ms. Walter costarred with Janet McTeer in a highly acclaimed revival of Mary Stuart, that just ended its limited engagement at the Broadhurst Theatre this past weekend. The production was beautiful enough, but the leading ladies became part of our cheeky lore this summer after the Tony award debacle where their identities were switched during the presentation of Best Actress in a Play. Marcia Gay Harden rectified the moment in her acceptance speech, but that didn’t stop us from finding inestimable pleasure in the technical glitch.
I first saw the production in May, capping a week where I saw seven shows in six days. I was exhilarated by the performances of the two leading ladies, and how the revisionist way in which the story was told in this particular adaptation. However, I never really sat down and wrote about it. That was one of the reasons why I felt compelled to return for the final performance, not only to enjoy the company of my fellow bloggers, but to give the show its fair due here on the blog.
British history is fascinating. I have found myself long fascinated with it, dating back to a memorable trip to London when I was 10. There has been a millenium’s worth of scandal, bloodshed, sex and intrigue (et al). From William the Conqueror taking on the Normans to the tabloid obsession with the current royal family, they have made quite a claim on fame and our interest.
However, the Tudor/Elizabethan era remains one of the most examined and dramatized in British history. Henry VIII, his six wives, his psychotic obsession with producing a male heir and his split from the Roman Catholic church finds its way into our books, films, televisions and on our stages.
The schism wreaked havoc on Britain in the generations that followed. Henry’s children found themselves at odds with one another, as (“Bloody”) Mary I remained a devout Catholic. By the time Elizabeth was crowned the Queen of England, she had already lost her mother Anne Boleyn when she was a toddler, been disinherited, removed from the line of succession, locked in the Tower of London and later placed on house arrest and found her life constantly in danger.
However, after the unsuccessful coup d’etat to place Lady Jane Grey (named in Edward’s will) on the throne of England, Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England. Her cousin Mary of Scotland posed a legitimate threat, with many Catholic rebels feeling that she and not Elizabeth should be on the throne of England. While Mary was alive, Elizabeth’s life was in constant danger. Historically, the two ladies never met face to face. However, that doesn’t make for interesting theatre, so every dramatization of their conflict has included fictionalized secret meetings which inevitably prove to be the most memorable scenes.
Friedrich Schiller’s play premiered in Germany in 1800 and has remained an immensely popular dramatization, even becoming the Donizetti opera Maria Stuarda in 1834. The play has seen numerous translations and adaptations. Peter Oswald adapted the play for the Donmar Warehouse production in 2005 directed by Phyllida Lloyd. It took four years for the director and leading ladies to be free for a Broadway run, and it was well worth the wait.
The ladies only the share the stage for about ten minutes in the play’s three hour running time, but oh, my friends, those were the moments worth waiting for. The first act gets a little bogged down in exposition, though the leading ladies are excellent. It’s fascinating to watch the two ladies command the stage. Mary is a showier part – a woman finding herself at the end of her wits fighting valiantly (and in vain) for her life after experiencing twenty years imprisonment and considerable oppression. McTeer is in total domination whenever she is onstage, a combination of her impressive height and immense talent.
Harriet Walter complements the powerhouse McTeer with an understated, wry and unfailingly fascinating performance as Elizabeth I. Where McTeer finds herself isolated in prison with her nurse (the lovely Maria Tucci), Elizabeth finds herself isolated in her position as Queen regnant surrounded by men who are either terrified of her or are trying to control her.
Both roles are incredibly demanding and both actresses were beyond excellent. The first act sets up the second act confrontation, which consists of a ten minute rain storm and a stunning effect upon Elizabeth’s entrance. In those few minutes, we watch Mary as she grovels at her cousin’s feet begging for her life. Elizabeth, shrewd and uncanny, is constantly aware of the political consequences of both sparing Mary and executing her, and treats her cousin with a coolness bordering on contempt. McTeer’s big moment comes during this scene, when she realizes that begging is futile and decides to unleash twenty years of pent-up rage on Elizabeth capping it with the line to end all lines “THE THRONE OF ENGLAND IS DESECRATED BY A BASTARD!!!”
Rarely are the ladies by themselves, and are usually in the presence of men (in Elizabeth’s case, she looks like she is perpetually caged in by the cast of Mad Men) yet it always feels as though both women are completely isolated – ironically enough sharing the understanding of the figurative burden that comes with a crown.
John Benjamin Hickey as the duplicitous Earl of Leicester, Brian Murray as the kindly Shrewsbury and the austere Nicholas Woodeson as the severe and calculating Lord Burleigh were the more impressionable of the gentlemen. Lloyd created some fascinating visuals: the abrupt opening invading Mary’s chambers, the trinity of counselors addressing Elizabeth while her back is to the audience, the unexpected entrance of Elizabeth at the top of the second act that ends the rainstorm, Mary accepting her fate with grace, in the fabled red gown, and the last searing image of Elizabeth stripped of her wig, period gown and makeup alone with herself as the lights dim.
After the performance, I waited around with the ladies while they made their pilgrimages at the stage door (where Marian…Marian Seldes made an appearance) then we headed off to Angus for our usual routine. This time we found ourselves seated at a table next to McTeer, Seldes and Brian Murray who were waiting for the closing party. Shortly thereafter we were told to “pipe down” by an irascible older woman who was apparently having a difficult time conversing with her friend due to our excessive noise (Excuse us for living). But we were very lucky that Arsenic and Old Lace were already done with dessert, so we were pretty much left on our own at the back of the restaurant to be raucous and randy.
Once we wrapped up at Angus, we ventured back across the street to the Broadhurst Theatre so Sarah could have a look. We followed suit, while Kari took more pictures. We realized our Mary Stuart acquaintances hadn’t crossed the street but were making their way toward Times Square. We waved goodbye, only to see someone else waving back at us. Upon realizing it was, of all the people in the world, Janet McTeer, Roxie shouted out affably, “Oh hey, Janet McTeer. What up?!” To which McTeer continued to smile and wave, while the rest of us were doubled over in laughter. Needless to say in terms of “quote of the day,” Ms. Z wins hands down.
Though we ventured up to the Lincoln Center Barnes & Noble and then O’Neals for one more nightcap, that final exchange on 44th Street, in front of the Broadhurst and all that we hold dear, marked the official end to the Summer of Harriet Walter.