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Review | 'Mary Stuart' a crown jewel in Perth Festival program

Mary Stuart | State Theatre Centre of WA | til Feb 25 | ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ 

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First premiering in 1800, Mary Stuart tells the tale of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots (the titular Mary Stuart). The two queens are locked in a political feud for survival and power, a feud further complicated by theological differences, uncertain allegiances, and past trauma repeating in the present.

Adapted in in 2019 for the Sydney Theatre Company, WA playwright Kate Mulvany wished to place an authentic woman’s voice into the source material. The first woman to adapt the work, Mulvany’s passion and empathy for the two female leads shines through in its treatment of these complex rulers.

Mary Stuart (portrayed by prolific and Perth-born actress Caroline Brazier) is a political hostage, held captive for two decades after abdicating her throne in Scotland by Queen Elizabeth I (Hollywood actress and gay icon Kate Walsh), who is threatened by the other queen’s popularity and possible claim to her own throne.

Surprisingly comedic — a turn that has many comparing the play to 2018 film The Favourite — the political drama has the grace to take time with its characters, opting to explore their complex humanity, examine how their pasts play out in the present, and unpack the nuances of being female rulers in a male-dominated society. One standout scene, an imagined meeting of the two queens that never happened in their real lives, brings a lively back-and-forth, fluidly moving between anger and fury at their disagreements, and into a cathartic collegiality as for the first time they meet another who might truly understand their situation.

As Mary Stuart, Brazier brings an incredible theatricality to the character. Alone from her posture in the opening scene, Brazier conveys both Stuart’s queenly pride and the desperation of her situation as she bemoans her captivity. The unsurety of Mary’s political intentions are fascinating, inviting the audience to assess for themselves whether Mary is the genuine and empathic queen she portrays herself as, or a cunning political agent manipulating public sentiment.

Kate Walsh, playing Elizabeth, seems at first a strong contrast to Brazier’s Stuart. Oozing an imperious nature as she holds court, Walsh brings levity and brightness to the scene, bouncing off her numerous advisors with ease. However, as the play progresses the façade unravels, and Walsh expertly reveals Elizabeth’s own insecurities, complexities, and her vulnerable sense of morality holding the weight of her cousin’s life in her hands. The decision of whether to execute Mary feels palpable, as Walsh breaks, recoils, and gathers herself in turns.

These women are served well by Mulvany’s hand, realised as authentic female voices in contrast to the play’s historical male-driven adaptations. With theological differences driving one element of their political opposition, their respective relationships with God are compared and contrasted in turn.

The play is served perfectly by its music and lighting production. A minimalist set designed of wood and mirrors in turn evokes court and cathedrals, and shifts dynamically between scenes. The sound design is, at first, minimalistic, underscoring the tension of the queens’ precarious situations. As the play progresses, composer Rachael Dease allows the music to swell. There is an incredible sense that, as the two female leads open up and begin to share their vulnerability with the audience, so too does the play at large, with the music underscoring emotion and relief.

Mary Stuart is a gem, featuring homegrown talent and a unique voice in historical drama. The entire cast and production deserve to be seen and recognised for their contributions to the cultural landscape.

P.S. Kate Walsh – if you read this I would love to get a drink with you!

Mary Stuart is running at the State Theatre Centre of WA until February 25. For tickets and more information, head to perthfestival.com.au

Mason Rothwell is a local advocate working with young people and the youth sector. He loves Australian Cattle Dogs.

Image: Jess Wyld


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