Mary Stuart at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre – Great Performances and Drama With A Side of Slander

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I was probably the wrong person to review this play.  But I have always wanted to see it since I heard of it existing.  I walked in, like much of the audience, thinking I was going to get a fairly accurate depiction of historical events.  In fact, many of the people in the audience kept remarking how “I didn’t know that!” during intermissions and at the end.  And there’s a reason they didn’t know that, because THAT was all made up.

This is not a historical play. This is a fantasy invented in the mind of a playwright.  You can’t expect history out of it, yet the audience left uncorrected, thinking they’d seen accurate depictions of events. This is my major criticism of what I saw, actually.  That Chicago Shakespeare expected more of its audience than they got. They expected them to know that the play was not accurate and there was nothing but a throwaway line in the program provided to set them right.

I suppose it isn’t a huge surprise that this new translation of a play written by a German playwright in 1800 would play fast and loose with English history, but it is so egregiously false that it might as well be about made up people from a made-up country instead of about real ones.

As someone who specialized in English history in college and has read nearly everything I can get my hands on about the English Renaissance and the various Tudor reigns, I felt like I was trapped in some horrifying alternate universe every time someone uttered a line.  It quite spoiled my enjoyment of the play. Which is a SHAME, because the play, as a play, is very good and the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre production is the same.

I would like to say that people should go see this in droves. It’s wonderful drama and superb work by the cast and crew.

A note about Schiller here, in case you aren’t familiar with his work.  He is the most important German playwright of his era. He and Goethe founded the Weimar Theatre and he’s basically German Shakespeare. And, like Shakespeare, he took the lives of real people and did his own special mythmaking with them. Peter Oswald has transformed his stilted poetic writing into contemporary and highly entertaining language in this new production. This is in no way history, though characters in the play have the names of historical people and some real-life events are fictionalized.  The emphasis here is on great drama, which this play delivers in spades.

And, it’s amazing that Schiller, who was an ardent Protestant who detested Catholic meddling in European politics, paints Mary as such an utterly sympathetic figure.  But he does.  In fact, the whole play, at least in this modern version, is as much of a pro-Catholic apologia as anything else.  And it also presents the pop-culture notion of Elizabeth as unlovable, old hag.  Which is utterly inaccurate when you actually look at the lengthy and extremely loyal relationships she had with most of her intimates throughout her reign. But accuracy is thrown out the window for drama here.  And it’s Mary that we are to love and Elizabeth who is a monstrous villain.

And I just can’t let the falsehood of this play go, so the rest of this review is going to reflect what I was watching AND what I know to be true.  What I was watching is in regular text.  What I know to be true is in italics.

So, in our alternate universe of the play where Mary Stuart (played by the luminous and fierce K. K. Moggie) is tiny instead of six feet tall and is being held in solitary confinement and deprived of her priest and servants and beloved pastimes instead of dining on 36 different dishes a day and having 13 servants. Mary is visited in prison by the made-up character of Mortimer (the enthusiastic Andrew Chown), the invented nephew of her jailer, Sir Amias Paulet (the staunch and wonderful Kevin Gudahl) – who mostly maintains his character here as an honorable man and ardent Puritan.

Mortimer (perhaps inspired by real life Francis Throckmorton who tried to assassinate Elizabeth in 1583) meets with Mary and tells her of his journey to Rome and conversion to Catholicism and all its glories.  He is now her man and is going to break her out of prison because she is Catholic and Elizabeth is a bastard because she is Protestant and from Henry’s second marriage which isn’t blessed by the Catholic Church.  This all goes by rather fast and the religious differences and basis for the quarrel are quite downplayed in this version which is odd because it is the entire reason for the fighting between the Queens.  Mary, here, seems willing to let it all go if she’s only allowed to go to free and says as much to Mortimer and Moggie is absolutely luminous and convincing in her righteous innocence.

In reality, Mary was 100% convinced she was rightful Queen of England because of her Catholicism.  And it was largely because of her Catholicism that the Scots, who were heading for Presbyterianism at the time, were quite happy to be done with her after she had her lover murder her second husband Darnley, who Elizabeth thought was working for her but really was all about being as powerful as he could make himself in Scotland. Reality is actually much more interesting than this fiction, but the play still gives the room for Mary to be impetuous and headstrong as well as righteous and wronged and Moggie does that all very, very well.

Except for the fact that Mary wasn’t wronged, she was a murderess and kept actually conspiring with people to murder Elizabeth.  The play totally glosses that part over, too.  It’s all vague “people trying to do things in Mary’s name” when Mary actually, from the age of 17, was pressing her claim to the English throne on the basis that Elizabeth was illegitimate and actively, along with her Uncles in France, calling for Elizabeth’s removal from the throne however that needed to be done. She was ultimately convicted by a letter in her own hand agreeing to Elizabeth’s assassination.

Mary writes a letter to (the in this play horribly slandered) Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (played with smarmy charm by Tim Decker) who is her secret love.  She and sends it by Mortimer, which brings us to Elizabeth’s court.

Robert Dudley, who was Elizabeth Tudor’s best friend from before she was ever Queen would no more have been secretly in love with Mary than he could have been secretly in love with a donkey. (Fact was, Robin Dudley was floated as a potential husband for Mary because Elizabeth wanted him to be her agent and control Mary.  Robin was horrified and refused.) The deal fell through and Mary fell in love with her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, instead, to disastrous results including his murder at the hands of Mary’s lover and subsequently third husband, the Earl of Bothwell.  And this may be a conflation of Leicester with the actual Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, who was conspiring with Mary to marry her and kill Elizabeth while Mary was in prison and was executed for that in 1571.

Dudley declares his undying love for Mary and is going to try to help her escape, but assures Mortimer they have to do it “the right way” so that his place at court isn’t damaged.  Because this Leicester just sucks up to Elizabeth and doesn’t really love her and is all about power.

Really, it is the slander of Robert Dudley that is the most horrible in this play.  To imagine the ardent Puritan, devoted friend, and prudent advisor to Elizabeth was a secret Catholic in love with her rival, who he never met in his life, is awful to behold. He was a good man and Schiller turns him to a villain. 

We also meet Lord Shrewsbury played intelligently by Robert Jason Jackson (also created into a Catholic apologist here when he was the opposite), Lord Burleigh, the scheming David Studwell, who wants to execute Mary as a threat, and overwhelmed Davidson (Michael Joseph Mitchell), who becomes important later.  They are all rivals of Leicester and Burleigh is especially suspicious of him in the world of the play. Which is utter nonsense in real life.

Elizabeth, a vain and power-mad caricature of herself, is played with immense intelligence and warmth by Kellie Overbey. She gets a lot of the best, funniest lines.  But she’s playing a propaganda version of Elizabeth that was put about by the French and Spanish, who hated her, and wanted Mary to be Queen.  So nothing like the real person.  In the world of the play, however, she’s just amazing. She’s vain and arrogant, but also immensely intelligent.

Both of the Queens in this show are stars and both actresses here are wonderful, but the play, from its title, is clearly on Mary’s side and shows that bias throughout.  Schiller manufactures a false meeting between the Queens, who actually exchanged many letters of their lives, but never met in person.  Set up by this version of Leicester, who hopes to get Elizabeth to pardon Mary, Elizabeth goes out “hunting” and stops by Mary’s prison at Fotheringhay Castle.

There Elizabeth is confronted by the righteous Mary and humiliated by Mary’s superior piety and claims and Elizabeth’s old, unloved, patheticness.  Elizabeth is driven away and on the road an assassination attempt takes place. This allows her to claim her “people” demand Mary’s execution, but in the world of the play it’s all about Mary’s triumph and personal insults to the aging, hag Queen.

In reality, Mary was either the focus or an active participant in The Rising of the Northern Earls in 1569, the Ridolfi Plot in 1571 in which Mary was an active participant and correspondent, and The Throckmorton Plot in 1584 and finally, the Babington Plot in 1586 where she sent a letter in her own writing consenting to Elizabeth’s assassination.  These repeated attempts to murder her cousin, not some strange attempt on the roadway, led to her execution. At Burleigh’s urging, which the play gets right.

Mortimer goes to Mary and says he’s going to kill Elizabeth for her and attempts to rape her because of his “love”.  Mary actually did have a stalker like this back in Scotland and he was executed.  Mortimer then goes to Elizabeth’s court to kill her for Mary, is found out, and then commits suicide, much to faux-Leicester’s disgust.

Elizabeth signs Mary’s death warrant and hands it off to her secretary Davidson, but cagily refuses to give him instructions to deliver it. (In reality, Elizabeth handed it over signed, but unsealed, so it wasn’t official. But this bit about the plausible deniability is actually true.  She was not going to have Mary’s blood on her hands and didn’t. She was certain that if she did kill Mary, the Catholics would rise again and she’d have to put them down again and she didn’t really enjoy killing people.) It is taken from him by Lord Burleigh (actually him and Walsingham who isn’t even in the play), who runs off to have Mary executed.  Mary is executed after being secretly given last rights (she had her own priest the whole time, though he was not allowed to accompany her to her execution) and magnanimously forgiving everyone for the injustice. (She did this, but she also ended by praying for the conversion of England and Scotland to Catholicism.) Not-Leicester is at her execution still pining to save her, but too cowardly to try.

When word reaches Elizabeth, she banishes Davidson and Burleigh from court.  Shrewsbury retires and she is left all alone because everyone hates her. It’s a very powerful statement and Schiller should be commended for this whole drama.  As should the cast carrying it out. They are superb at portraying everything written by him and modern translator Oswald.

It’s just all a total pack of pretty, dramatic lies.

The shape of the stage at Chicago Shakespeare necessitates a minimalist set and the one here, “inspired by brutalist architecture” serves its purpose as castle walls. The costumes are highly stylized, with the men almost uniformly in gray and Mary in sober dark green and Elizabeth in a magenta that clashes with her red hair.  The styles are utterly wrong for these dresses, more in line with Victorian gowns than Elizabethan, but are probably the more comfortable for the actors.

In this production Mary wears blood red for her execution.  In reality it was dark brown, which is the color of martyrdom in the Catholic Church and she chose that deliberately. Mary was very good about Catholic symbolism. Elizabeth is left alone and unwanted at the end with all the men running after Mary and crushed by her death (other than Burleigh).

Again, as drama it has great power.  But sadly, as it is largely based on propaganda, people are walking out of it thinking they’ve seen history and that’s problematic. I wish there’d been a bit more emphasis on the fantasy nature of the play.  But it really is my only quibble.  As theatre it’s superb.

Tickets are available here.

Photography by Michael Brosilow and Liz Lauren.



  • Suzanne Magnuson

    Professional writer with 20 plus years of experience. M.A., M.B.A. Travel Editor and Social Media Manager for Splash Magazines Worldwide. Senior Editor. Member of Advertising Team.

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About Suzanne Magnuson 140 Articles
Professional writer with 20 plus years of experience. M.A., M.B.A. Travel Editor and Social Media Manager for Splash Magazines Worldwide. Senior Editor. Member of Advertising Team.

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