Mary Stuart | Talkback

On 5 January, Mary Stuart cast members Vincent Franklin, Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams and Director Robert Icke stayed after the performance to share their thoughts on creating the production. Below are highlights from the Q&A discussion.

[SPOILER NOTE: This conversation contains references to key plot points and character analysis which you may prefer to read after watching the show.]


Audience Member: Lia and Juliet, I was curious if you usually have a pre-performance ritual and how the coin toss has changed your preparation before the show?

Juliet Stevenson: We all warm up together as a company which would be the same for any show. But then it gets a bit complicated because you don't know who you're going to play. If you're Mary, you're on very quickly. So if the coin toss gives you Mary, you've only got four minutes to turn around and come back on.

What we tend to do is think Mary, so that if you do play her then you're ready. Then if you're Elizabeth you've got the whole of Act one to prepare.

Lia Williams: I suppose it's unique in the sense that you empty your head. We both wait backstage and empty our brains. It's a great feeling, because normally you have to load your brain up with all sorts of things but we have to do the opposite because we have no idea what's going to happen.

Juliet Stevenson: That coin toss, the first thing that happens on stage, is a really brilliant moment for us. If it was decided somewhere else and then we had to come on it would be different, but that moment is shared with all of you. So we're of all equal in a way. None of us know, and we all find out at the same moment and we take it from there.

Audience Member: How close to Schiller's text is it?

Robert Icke: It's close and not close. We have a really weird attitude to the word adaptation in this country and this theatre culture, which I find quite funny. Partly because we always cut and change Shakespeare, and yet we pretend that there's such a thing as authentic, ‘full text’ Shakespeare. So many of the plays that we think of as single author plays: all of Shakespeare, all of the Greek tragedies, are adaptations by our modern definition. We're really snooty about that, as if you kind of had to have thought of a completely original plot before it counts as a play. It seems to me that that is dissonant with so much of the cultures that created the plays we reverence the most.

Shakespeare's culture had this practice whereby if there was an old play in your repertoire, as a company you could say to a writer, "would you just sex that one up a bit?" That sounds patronising but of course that's how we've got King Lear. They had an old play also called King Leir that he sexed up for them and made it into the thing we've got.

In a long answer to the question, how close is it to the Schiller, I find it hard to answer because it's an instinctive process. It’s shorter. The Queens and I did a reading of the full German text at one point and it lasted about five hours. Would mine be a different text if I didn't know I was writing it for these two ladies to do? Of course, completely different. Because I wrote it really fast from the German, with a view to doing what I knew we were going to do. And so the text just becomes one other thing like the set design or the music. It's just another one of the elements that you're trying to drive towards each other in the hopes that they make a thing that's bigger than sum of its parts.

Juliet Stevenson: Did you feel there were times when you were pulling it towards something that had a contemporary resonance or that it was already there?

Robert Icke: No, I just tried to write as honestly and instinctively as possible. Chasing contemporary resonance is a no-win game.

I had a slightly panicky moment when I realised it was going to have to stay in verse. I started just by translating the sense of it and it just wasn't as good. It wasn't anything like as good. And then I realised it was because the verse gives it a pressure and a drive and a heartbeat; a visceral intensity. Which no matter what they're saying, keeps it running forward.

Audience Member: Has the coin landed pretty much 50-50?

Juliet Stevenson: The coin is so weird. Last week I got loads of Elizabeths, and I thought this coin is got some weird kink in it. This week it's the other way around! Lia's getting all Elizabeth's and this was our third night this way around.

Audience Member: Do you just try to keep both roles really open in your head before the toss?

Lia Williams: Really open - one feeds the other. They are tremendous to play and both have different energies. Rob described it brilliantly once in rehearsals. He said that Mary is an exhale and Elizabeth's an inhale. So playing them both works really well. But there are some days when you're on an inhale yourself and you kind of think, "oh I hope it's Elizabeth tonight." But you're never sure.

Juliet Stevenson: I only ever had one ambition, which was not to have a preference. I thought whatever happens, I never want my heart to be in my mouth when that coin is spinning. I never want to wish it goes one way or the other. I can't bear that idea.

And then I saw the play in bits as Elizabeth and then I thought, "she's fucking brilliant as Elizabeth. I'm completely lost in what I'm doing with her." We both found Mary much easier. Then I got really used to Elizabeth so then I only ever wanted to be her. But I didn't like that feeling. Whereas now I feel I've got my equilibrium back.

Robert Icke: There was a thing in previews when whichever Queen played Mary came off feeling brilliant saying, "I've had a great show. I'm really finding things." And whichever Queen had Elizabeth came off going, “I think I'm nowhere. I don't know what I'm doing." And we realised after a while that the parts were actually leaving us with that feeling.

Juliet Stevenson: The thing about Mary is she's on the line - she says what she thinks. It's very Shakespearean in that sense, that thought and feeling are not really separated. She thinks what she feels, she feels what she thinks. Everything that drives her is evident. Elizabeth is completely opposite. Everything that drives and shapes Elizabeth is buried deep inside herself. She doesn't fess up to anything, really. She's tight. She’s very, very interesting to play because of that.

Vincent Franklin: There are two versions of the play really - the two performances are so far apart that actually there are like a mirror ball of different facets. It isn't a sphere in which you go ‘well that's a clear reflection of one way’ and then you turn it the other and it's the same. The play is very different. And because all of the other characters are satellites of, or enemies of, or supporters of, these two very different Queens, that actually we're all playing different characters.

Audience Member: I was interested in the use of the sound scape and the decision to back the language with sound, which I'm used to from cinema. I go to a film expecting that. I don't, still, generally expect it in a theatre. I wondered if its use meant you weren’t confident in your text.

Robert Icke: I mean, I'm always delighted to defy expectation. If you're just very quiet for a second and listen to this room, [the audience hears the buzz of the electric lights] there's no such thing as silence in a small theatre - there is not a bed of silence against which you can speak. It's genuinely annoying. Of course you don't have it in rehearsals and then suddenly you're fighting the rig noise. There's nothing you can do about it because the ceiling is low and you need to be able to see. So in that sense the sound scape is partly pragmatic. But artistically, it is just true that it gives the actors a very specific sort of support if you get it right, which I think Paul Arditti who did the sound on this show has done.

It's nothing to do with confidence in the text, because the assumption in that statement is to say that somehow it would be better to have great text sitting in silence, in nothing – which I reject, but secondly, actually you can't have nothing in a room of 400 people and lights. So instead I personally prefer, and most of the theatres in Europe I think are moving in this direction now, that if there is going to be sound, I prefer to control it. And I prefer to be able to create a certain atmosphere, and to conduct the evening in an orchestral sense with means other than the actors.

Lia Williams: The interesting thing about sound effects is that they’re not separated from the acting and the dialogue. What's extraordinary about this from experiencing it in rehearsal, what you find is that it without you really noticing it supports what you're doing.

For instance, in Act 3 when Mary is being released for the first time to the outside world, there's just this quiet support coming from the sound which totally transports you into another world. And if it transports us, then it must be doing that to you as well, or some of you, hopefully. It elevates the thing that you're doing rather than being a separate birdsong tweeting sound!

Juliet Stevenson: It's interesting, because normally in tech sessions you plod slowly through the play and put every single technical cue in; every light, every sound, and every movement of the stage. Then I was very unaware of what the sound scape was, I have to say. And I'm only hearing things now. Rob never said, "hold that line there because there's going to be a sound there." So I'm still hearing new things - until tonight's show I didn't notice there's a tiny sound after Mortimer says to Mary in the Act one, "you are the rightful heir…" I've never heard that before. It's just supporting the dialogue.

Audience Member: I absolutely understand what you say about it supporting verse. I see the sense of that. It was, not colouring it, but sort of giving it a sort of base rhythm.

Robert Icke: It gives it a bed, yeah. It’s very hard to articulate, but I promise you it would be worse without it.

Audience Member: In the interval, I came out thinking that Mary was just very annoying. But my mum was saying, "I just feel so bad for Mary, I really sympathise with her." And I was like, no no no! I sympathise with Elizabeth. So I was just wondering if your sympathies change throughout performances?

Juliet Stevenson: I think Schiller romanticises Mary. He's called it Mary Stuart - he hasn't called it ‘Mary and Elizabeth’. I think it's quite tilted in her favour. I think one of the great things about this version is that it balances that out. Rob’s general note for either of us playing Mary was that she's not a romantic heroine.

I feel the version and this production combined have redressed the balance. It's absolutely not for us to judge them any way, it's absolutely not appropriate for us to judge them. All we're trying to do is we're trying to understand why they are the way they are and why they say and do what they say and do. It's for you to make those judgments.

Audience Member: Can you expand a little bit as to why you think the version has redressed the balance and in what sort of way?

Robert Icke: Classic plays always come with baggage - they always turn up at your house with three suitcases. You have to say to them, "you can't bring your stuff." One of this play’s baggages is ‘Elizabeth=bitch, Mary=hero’ – that’s the version we receive.

But it seemed to me that one of the things the play really explores is that if you define yourself in opposition to something, you need that thing - Mary and Elizabeth both need each other. I said to Juliet and Lia in rehearsal if you're Mary in the coin toss, you desperately think it should have been you who was Elizabeth, who was the queen. But if you're Elizabeth, what you really want to do is be Mary Stuart who has loads of sex and has had a wild life. They are both free, and both imprisoned.

I think part of that is - and we live in interesting times for this - the idea that actually you can't have a right and a wrong. Our industry is the most left-wing industry in the world, but it seems that the left wing is, worldwide, losing the argument. We're having to, in a very useful way I think, broaden our minds and realise there's a majority of people who don't agree or who don't want to agree. It's very easy to go ‘we're just right about this’, and we do it to plays in the same way we've done it to our view of the world: skew them. But the responsibility is to the bigger picture, not just to a ‘right version’. Your responsibility is to present the whole, not just to decide on half.

So, it seems to me that the play is very clever about saying at the end that Mary Stuart gets to die having lived, but Elizabeth has to live having in some way died.

Vincent Franklin: There's a great line that I really love when Burleigh says ‘the English public love an underdog’. You'll all love her. Of course. She's in prison, poor her. Poor fucking terrorist in prison. And it's really important. People always hate the person on top. I think it's a really gritty line.

Juliet Stevenson: There's another element too in which they are women. Any number of Kings have behaved the way Elizabeth has, but nobody questioned it. There's no suggestion that because he's having people executed there's anything morally questionable about him. He's just being a King.

Whereas because she's Queen her actions, as always with women, are judged by a completely different set of criteria. The same is true of Mary. How many men in history have been a vocalist of political imaginations and plots and went down in history as probably heroes?

Robert Icke: She's the poster girl in history for her sex life ruining her political career and Henry VIII isn't. And you think ‘hang on…’

Juliet Stevenson: In both cases Elizabeth and Mary have been assessed and judged by history. A lot of what we focused on was thinking was to be clean of that. Let's not be afraid to make very tough choices about them, and let's not make Mary some sort of romantic heroine. Let's really look for the side of her that's lying when she says she not colluding with Babington. Of course, let's make her interesting, and if you judge her for that, that's your problem. But let's not do the clean-up job in the rehearsal room. Let's present her exactly as she is but let's not make her a heroine, or make Elizabeth a monster. Elizabeth is so clearly a portrait of somebody who has trouble with power, as so many women do - their relationship to power is so complex.

Robert Icke: I also think many men do. Being in power is really hard. But we've had a good year for that, 2016 was a difficult one. You have to be really smart and decisive to be in power, and if you get it wrong, the world really falls apart.

Lia Williams: Trump was clearly decisive!

Robert Icke: He's clear. He's about to be decisive.

Vincent Franklin: There's a pun in the very first line of the play which is, "this is a jewel [dual]." It's a series of scenes with people having different opinions, but no one is wrong and no one right. There's a lot of grey and that's quite difficult and quite challenging. We like to know that there's a black and there's a white, and that grey is just messy.

But in the play a series of people all find that there's something they really believe in. I think that's the important thing for me that every character, whether we might judge them as we like them or don't like them, have a rational and an honesty about themselves. When you meet them it's like a series of little battles between different viewpoints, but no one coming and going, "oh, at this point I'm just going to come in and bat it around a bit." They’re coming in because it's a dual and if I lose this I could lose my life, if I lose this next argument. For all of them.

Robert Icke: One of the images we looked at when we designed the set was that of a sumo wrestling ring. That idea that when you get pushed out of it, you’re over. Some of that hung on in there I think.

Audience Member: What strikes me always in thinking about both Elizabeth and Mary was the extent to which they are both playing a part, and actually Mary isn't as good at sticking to the ‘script’ as Elizabeth is. To what extent in playing Elizabeth and Mary are you conscious of playing the part of somebody who's often playing a part?

Juliet Stevenson: It's a really interesting question - we play so many versions of ourselves, don't we? We are so many selves. We adapt so much to whoever we're with.

Elizabeth is one person in her Privy Council, and she has to wait for them to go before she says, "I fucking hate the people, hate them." She has soliloquies because that's the only time she tells you what she really feels, where Mary tends to go ‘this is how I feel’. It doesn't mean that Elizabeth in the Privy Council is a false Elizabeth, because she is also somebody who draws great strength from that position of control. It's good, it feels good. That's part of her too.

Robert Icke: Facts are also quite slippery in this play, as in history. And one of the things about Mary that you just don't know, and history doesn't know, is to what extent she was organising plots. Nothing is proved, there are parts that might be definite or might be faked or might be interfered with.

Juliet Stevenson: Mary is writing her own version. She says that they can say that I was hated; they can write that I was hated, but I'm telling you I was loved. She's very conscious of what happens in that moment, that everything is going to be recorded and it was. There are three or four different actual eye witness accounts of that moment, of her execution, what happened, what she did, the dog that ran out from under her dress, and the wig that fell off and so on.

Lia Williams: I don't think she's consciously playing anything. We all create our own set of truths for our lives, and I think in the moment that they're saying the things that they're saying, they fully believe that.

Juliet Stevenson: Yes that's true, when you're waiting to come on to play Mary in Act Five, you're waiting behind the wall, you hear someone say "how is she?" And Kennedy says, "She's fine. She made her peace; she doesn't seem to be frightened. No word of fear has passed her lips." I always hear, "no word of fear has passed her lips," and I thought well that doesn't mean she's not frightened. That's not a note about how to play the scene. I always play the scene that she's shitting herself. Of course she is - but she is choosing to play serenity. It isn't her reality, it's what she’s choosing to present.

We all do that don't we? “I'm fine. I'm absolutely fine. Nobody ask me how I am because I'm fine and if you go on asking I won't be.” In that sense it's playing a role, but it's actually just a way of interfacing with the world when your internal life is very chaotic.

Audience Member: Just following on from what you just said, it would be very interesting to re-write the play where Mary had actually some preparation for the encounter. I'm just wondering how that might play out, and what difference it might make historically?

Robert Icke: Well the encounter's rumoured in history but it is not confirmed. It's often said that it's completely fictionalised but that's not quite right.

Lia Williams: My instinct is that even with preparation... Because Elizabeth was prepared, one could argue, when she turns to see Mary there's a difference between what she imagined and the truth of what she actually encountered.

Juliet Stevenson: Yes, exactly, because half of how we perceive somebody is what we've projected on to them, and I think that these two women have projected their own longings onto the other so much for so long.

Lia Williams: It is a kind of love story.

Robert Icke: But also, there's a possibility that there was many chances during that meeting where it could still go well. And it doesn’t become completely beyond redemption until we get into ‘your mum was a whore’. Right until the end you think, maybe Elizabeth will just give in - Mary is one handshake away from ‘it’s fine’.

Until then the two of them have spent years thinking that the other one is the reason why their life is bad. In the same way they are aware that the other one is only other person in the world that has the same deal as them, in a structural way. It's a beautiful symmetrical structure, acts one and five are in prison, two and four in court, and act three, the meeting. It's so clever of Schiller to write a structure that allows them to be both perfectly similar and completely different.

For those people who haven’t seen it twice, in our version the Queens are always on the same side of the stage, so that it's staged and mirrored depending on what version it is but you always get Lia and Juliet always standing on the same side. Part of that for me was about the idea that you're just waiting to see whether it's similarity or difference that's going to win. That central pivot of the play, the meeting, is when you see which way the sea-saw is going to come down.

And of course some people don’t know the history. Some people will bring their knowledge in with them, but some people don't. We’ve had school groups gasp in Act One when Elizabeth is said to have been killed, because they don’t know the history in that moment in the story.

Juliet Stevenson: We're always learning how to play that scene. I'm always aware more and more that they are being watched. They have several Lords, Talbot and Paulet and Leicester - there are a lot of people with very vested interests listening to them, so they are essentially in public. If they'd met in a room just the two of them, it might have been different. But they have reputations to keep up. Elizabeth was pulled there by her lover saying, "you show her." So she's got an agenda to play which she has to try and hold onto against the reality of the situation.

Robert Icke: Often the scene that you end up in is not the scene you thought you entered, just like life. It's very rarely what anybody expects.

Juliet Stevenson: I'm gradually realising is Mary is so powerful, so moving, so eloquent. She's pulling so much sympathy and it's so wonderful that Elizabeth has to keep saying, "But you're a killer. Sorry, but you're a murderer." All she ever says is, "You're a murderer”. Every time she opens her mouth she refers to her being a murderer, a killer. But because Elizabeth herself is being moved, she can feel the pull of Mary's eloquence, she can feel her sympathies being drawn. She's feeling the opposite of what she's saying; I think that's the way to play it. There are always two scenes going on. One is internal and the other is the decision, the tactic, the public face.

Robert Icke: Thank you for coming to talk to us. As you can see we love it, and are always very happy to talk about it. Thank you for joining us.


Mary Stuart in the West End | 13 Jan – 31 Mar 2018
Click here for more information and to book online.

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