Walking into The Assembly Rooms Theatre, the audience were greeted by melodious harp music as if one were entering the courtly world of Mary Stuart. The historical play written by the German playwright Friedrich Schiller (and translated by Peter Oswald) is described by the director, Penny Babakhani, as a “not-very-accurate but very human story of power, love and loss”. This emphasis on the relationships between characters rather than the historical events invigorated the play, presenting it as an engaging family feud rather than a documentary.
The set was simple, yet this allowed the actors to manipulate the vast amounts of space on the stage and prove their dramatic worth. The sheer hangings upstage were lit with different colours at scene changes for an effective and clear communication of distinct places of action. During the scene in which the incarcerated Mary Stuart (Emilie Aspeling) is allowed outside of her prison walls, the hangings were projected with green and the stage was cleared of any props, allowing Aspeling to frolic around in her new-found freedom. Despite first night nerves causing a few stammers, the play swelled to a climax successfully in this scene of queens meeting: the near-petulance of the Queen of England (Jasmine Price) in the scene vied clearly against the desperate Mary Stuart. Throughout, Price gave a compelling performance as Elizabeth I, managing to draw the audience’s attention with her sighing facial expressions and rolling eyes at the obsequious courtiers even during courtly scenes in which she had few lines. Special note should be made of her performance.
As for the courtiers, the Lords Burleigh (Matt Dormer), Shrewsbury (Sandy Thin) and Leicester (Tristan Robinson) gave strong, convincing performances adorned in capes. The dramatic chemistry between Robinson and Price in particular allowed their courting scene to be both charming and thrilling, as Leicester is gradually exposed as an uneasy and conniving character. The staging of this scene was simplistic, but directing Robinson to lie in Price’s lap successfully communicated the idea that although Elizabeth, as the Queen of England, has a higher rank than Lord Leicester, he has the power to manipulate and put pressure on her. Robinson must be singled out as an effortless actor and a pleasure to watch.
The cast as a whole were very strong, yet had a few of the actors relaxed into the rhythm of the play and bounced off the energy of the leads, the production would have been slightly more cohesive. The shadowed double of Leicester in Mortimer (Rohan Perumatantri) was conveyed, but lacked the same conniving spirit of the former. However, the “war of words” was relentless and this built up tension between the opposing queens, leading to a tragic conclusion. The tender spirit of Melvil (Erin Welch) provided a source of solace in the bleakest moments of the concluding scenes, and Welch’s memorable performance bodes well for her future theatrical escapades. Musical Director Sophie Brown’s harp interludes during scene changes masked the movements of the set and reaffirmed the stately Elizabethan world of the drama. The music was also employed to emphasise certain scenes, and the departure Brown from the stage at the close of play highlighted the isolation of the now politically secure Elizabeth.
The overall production of the play was of a very high standard, maintaining a pretty slick running of discourse bar a few stutters here and there. This being the first play I have seen from Fourth Wall Theatre, I am sure I will be returning to watch another production of theirs. Congratulations to the entire company.