Restaging Mary Stuart

Resident Director Ilinca Radulian explores restaging Mary Stuart in the West End nearly a year after its previous run at the Almeida.

To write about revisiting Mary Stuart after a year is to write about overcoming anxiety. The show is done – it was made, it had a life –so what are we going to do with it, to it, now? And it was relevant last time – but is it still relevant –in the same way, another way?

When we did the show at the Almeida we had six weeks to rehearse before moving to the theatre for technical rehearsals. Six weeks sounds luxurious, but we quickly discovered it wasn’t. The show is effectively two shows because Juliet and Lia have their own versions of the same character. When we started we decided that we wouldn’t try to steer Juliet and Lia towards the same interpretation. In a play that is all about seeing reality from your point of view and interpreting it to fit your wishes or suspicions, we thought it would be much juicier to present the audience with two versions of the same thing. So Juliet and Lia don’t observe each other in rehearsals, which means that we rehearse everything twice –and suddenly six weeks seems like no time at all.

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So coming back to it after a year means we could build on that and discover more subtleties. The run at the Almeida is recent enough that we remember the show, but distant enough that we’ve had time to reflect on how to make it deeper. Because this time we were working on an existing show, we could create a version prepared to grow over the course of the run, rather than stay fixed and controlled. It feels like we’re giving each actor a palette and turning them into painters: ‘Here are your colours – you have at your disposal three greens, four blues, a blood red, and the blackest black – it’s up to you how you combine them – in what proportions’. This means the audience will always see something alive, an unrepeatable event – and that feels genuinely exciting.

A few cast members are joining us for the first time. With their characters, we haven’t tried to replicate what we had before. Instead, their presence has helped remind us how startling and bracing the process is – and how startling and bracing the show should be. Seeing them go through the process of meeting Elizabeth as two different characters, and Mary as two different characters, has reminded us how the difference in Juliet and Lia’s interpretation of the same character reverberates through the play and creates two shows for everyone. So the entire cast is effectively playing double parts. Even if you’re playing Burleigh, for example, and you’re working with the same proposition – same lines, same thread – you have to respond differently to Lia’s Elizabeth than you do to Juliet’s Elizabeth.

It’s also been thrilling to meet a new space. We were worried about losing the closeness we had before. At the Almeida you’re right there, squashed against the actors – like faces pressed against a fish bowl. The proximity necessarily involves you in the action. We were worried – what if a larger space separates, alienates?

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But it turns out the Duke of York’s doesn’t feel remote at all. Instead it coagulates. The performance radiates concentrically from our circular stage and pulls the audience in. The theatre is high, so we can let thoughts unfurl and take the audience along. We’ve also been calibrating speed. We discovered the text makes more sense the faster it is spoken – if spoken at the speed of thought. It’s like a piece of music. If you play it slowly, you can hear each note and appreciate its beauty, but you never get a sense of the whole, of how the structure arcs and melts, creating meaning and emotion. If you play it at the speed it intrinsically demands, the notes still make sense individually – but also together. You get the discrete, as well as the total, effect. So we’re learning to fly with the text. We’re learning to modulate it so we make meaning out of the bar – and of the phrase – and send it to fly into the space.

As for relevance – that worry quickly went away. Last time the Brexit vote was very fresh. Every night, on the line ‘A majority does not prove a thing is right’, the audience erupted. We’re further down the road now, so we were anxious about lost relevance. If the play doesn’t speak to ‘now’ then it’s just museum theatre.

But it looks like the play responds to touch. The headlines of the day seem to impact it immediately, urgently. The world runs through the pipes of the play. And suddenly the play is about reality shifting under foot – how unreal everything is –how hard to extricate truth from lies. Going forward we can’t wait to see this relevance unfold and refract – and share that with the audience.


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



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