Suspicion! Betrayal! Suicide! Murder!
These are the key ingredients of tabloid articles that rivet today’s public. Likewise, 16th-century England buzzed with whispers and rumors about Mary, Queen of Scots, and her cousin, Queen Elizabeth, as each claimed a legal right to the throne.
The story of their rivalry unfolds in Peter Oswald’s translation of “Mary Stuart” by German playwright Friedrich Schiller, opening at Folger Theatre this week. This drama played to packed houses in London’s West End, on Broadway and, most recently, at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2013.
The play reprises a time when men wielded power and the religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics waged fiercely.
The centerpiece is a fictional account of a meeting between the Catholic Mary, hoping for a reprieve from prison, and Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant, hesitant to sign Mary’s death warrant. No matter that the two women, played by Kate Eastwood Norris in the title role and Holly Twyford as Queen Elizabeth, are the nation’s political figureheads, their lives are manipulated by the men around them. Four men, each with his own agenda, have key roles in the outcome.
Cody Nickell plays the Earl of Leicester, Robert Dudley, one of Elizabeth’s statesmen and a favorite of hers for many years.
“Leicester doesn’t believe in extreme measures,” Mr. Nickell said.
Schiller cast Leicester as a go-between of the two sides and created the fictional Mortimer, identified in the play as the nephew of Mary’s custodian, George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury.
Paul-Emile Cendron is Mortimer, the fervent admirer of Mary.
“His goal is to free her from prison,” Mr. Cendron said. “At that time, many different factions were trying to free Mary. It would have been impossible to include them all in a two-hour play, so Schiller threw in a wrench in the person of Mortimer. He is a young man who has gone to France, where a cardinal encourages him to change his religion to Catholic. He sees a picture of Mary, falls in love with her and what she represents, and makes a few rash decisions believing that he can save her.”
Mortimer’s solution is to secretly pass a letter from Mary to Leicester, but his hasty plot to free her is discovered. She remains imprisoned under the care of George Talbot, played by Craig Wallace.
“Queen Elizabeth chose Talbot to be the keeper of Mary because he was married to a woman who was part of her inner circle,” Mr. Wallace said. “He was rich and actually moved her around England to several palaces he owned.
“There was a lot of talk about what might happen if Mary died,” he said. “Talbot thwarts two attempts to rescue her, yet he becomes enchanted with her over time and reaches two decisions. The first is to convince Elizabeth not to murder Mary, because he is certain that it will haunt her for the rest of her life. If that fails, his next goal is to save Elizabeth’s soul. This is the voice of Schiller.”
With Talbot no longer responsible for Mary’s care, her fate rests with Elizabeth’s secretary of state, Lord Burleigh, played by Rajesh Bose.
“Burleigh’s primary concern is that Elizabeth could die if Mary lives,” Mr. Bose said. “He strongly opposes Catholicism and is convinced that saving her will produce many issues and problems for England. Doing what is best for the country is critical.”
“This play works well,” Mr. Nickell said. “The script is heavy in language, less heavy in action. Director [Richard] Clifford brings to the table a facility for language. If you can convey and engage people with beautiful speeches, it becomes a vibrant symphony.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Mary Stuart”
WHEN: Jan. 27 to March 8
WHERE: Folger Theatre, 201 E. Capitol St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20003
INFO: Tickets $40-$75 at 202/544-7077 or Folger.edu/theatre