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Mary Stuart, Criterion Theatre review

Mary Stuart at the Criterion Theatre, Earlsdon, until Saturday September 10.


By Chris Arnot.

Elizabeth 1 and Mary Stuart were first cousins, albeit once removed. Considerably removed, as it happened, by the end of this absorbing exploration of their less than cousinly relationship.

By that time, Mary Queen of Scots had been condemned to have her head removed by Elizabeth Queen of England.

Her crime? Having claims to the throne of England. Oh yes, and being a Catholic.

Then, as in parts of the world now, people were prepared to murder each other over different ways of worshipping the same god.

“When she is vanished,” Elizabeth mused at one point: “I shall be as free as mountain air.”

“If only,” she might have added. In truth she and her cousin were women trapped in what was very much a man’s world.

Elizabeth may have been Queen but it was her “principal adviser”, First Baron Burleigh, who called the shots – at least “the chop”.

Surly Burleigh is played by a grim-faced Jon Elves, Elizabeth by Deb Relton-Elves who manages to capture the dilemmas and indecisiveness facing a female monarch at the time.

The play was first written only two centuries after the Elizabethan era. By German poet and

philosopher Friedrich Schiller, as it happened. It was translated into English far more recently by Peter Oswald, the first playwright-in-residence at Shakespeare’s Globe in London.

Mary Stuart has finally made it to the Criterion under the direction of Hugh Sorrill, but only after two previous attempts that were stymied by the pandemic.

The first-night performance confirmed that it was worth the wait and indeed the persistence of Hugh and a cast displaying many a memorable performance.

Apart from the Elveses mentioned earlier, Ted McGowan captured the almost demented passion of

Catholic convert Mortimer as he urged Mary to stand up for their faith and Peter Gillam the comparatively laid-back decadence of the Earl of Leicester. Yes, the one who once welcomed Elizabeth to Kenilworth Castle.

That renowned royal visit was some years after her first cousin once removed had had her head removed by the executioner’s axe.

Just up the road in Coventry several centuries later, Leonie Slater portrays the Queen of Scots with assurance tinged by understandable fears. She gives Mary a saintliness that is hardly warranted, as one of her “pre-chop” confessions confirms.

Still, as the play named after her also confirms, it is faults of character that power dramatic tragedies.