Friedrich Schiller was a philosopher—a philosopher who happened, on occasion, to write dramas.
Schiller was deeply concerned with aesthetics (in its pure definition), and Schiller was a profound observer of realpolitik. Schiller knew on a personal basis, or corresponded with, virtually all the great minds of his time—and he discussed with those persons virtually all the great issues of the day, and incorporated much of this discourse into his plays.
Schiller’s dramas are de facto treatises on aesthetics and realpolitik—a circumstance that makes Schiller’s dramas very hard to present today, as audiences no longer are interested in hearing such matters addressed in the theater.
In 2013, the real Schiller may be encountered only on the printed page. When Schiller’s dramas are staged, they are so heavily cut and so heavily adapted that they are in effect the work of another author.
This regrettable practice is especially prevalent in English-speaking countries, where Schiller plays are both cut to the bone and dumbed-down, leaving the plots intact while removing all philosophical richness and all elevated language and thought.
On our second day at The Stratford Festival, we attended an evening performance of Schiller’s “Mary Stuart”. Roughly ninety minutes of Schiller’s text had been excised from the staging. I do not understand, given the lethal amputations, why The Stratford Festival even bothered with the remaining segments. Surely everyone—audiences, actors, members of the stage crew, groundskeepers—would have been happier with screenings of the 1971 Charles Jarrott film, “Mary, Queen Of Scots”, with Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson. The film is not very distinguished, but at least the performances are colorful . . .
Which is more than may be said of the Stratford performances, which were dull, plodding and unsubtle.
Lack of color, however, was an issue of relative unimportance at Stratford, since it was the lack of competence that was the far more serious concern. I cannot recall the last time I saw so many actors on the same stage playing material so far above their heads.
The actress portraying Elizabeth I had been Madame Arcati in the previous day’s “Blithe Spirit”. Poor as had been her Madame Arcati, this woman’s Elizabeth I was worse.
But not worse than the Mary Stuart of the actress onstage alongside her, who was impossibly—even laughably—bad. It was all we could do to keep from giggling and snickering whenever she had a speech.
The three male leads—Burleigh, Leicester and Shrewsbury—were no better, although we were able to observe that Brian Dennehy, in the role of Shrewsbury, is one giant of a man, upwards of 6’5”, I would guess. From his screen appearances, I had somehow assumed—wrongly—that Dennehy was short.
It was left to the supporting cast to offer a performance or two of merit. Finest of all was the young actor playing Mortimer, who managed to be passionate, poetic and winning in his appearances. He came close to stealing the show. His name is Ian Lake.
Unacceptable as was the acting company, the true villainy in this “Mary Stuart” production did not come from the persons onstage. The true villainy came from the director, Antoni Cimolino, who first selected a corrupt adaptation of “Mary Stuart” and then staged it with breathtaking ineptitude.
The Peter Oswald adaptation was used, the same adaptation used by Donmar Warehouse a few years back in a production that was to end up on Broadway. Oswald’s adaptation is hackwork, compiled with scissors and scotch tape. It has three immediate strikes against it: it renders Schiller’s original unrecognizable; it is not “playable”; and it eliminates Schiller’s themes. I am bewildered that any self-respecting theater company would touch the Oswald adaptation with a ten-foot pole.
Trying to stage the thing on Stratford’s awkward runway thrust stage, Cimolino was utterly at sea. He had not a clue what to do. We found it amusing to watch the actors as they clumsily but dutifully moved about the stage, trying to give the illusion that their movements had some purpose—when everyone in the theater understood that the constant shifting of people around the giant platform, forming first one clump here and then another clump there, was to allow everyone in the theater an opportunity to witness at least one scene close at hand. Several times during the performance, we were beside ourselves, watching the preposterous maneuvers being played out before our eyes.
Amid all this foolishness, Schiller and “Mary Stuart” had no chance whatsoever.
Both sank without a trace.