Mary Stuart, 18 to 22 October, O’Reilly: Elizabeth I is something of a favourite monarch among the English today, remembered not least thanks to our Elizabeth II, with only Henry VIII ranking higher in popularity stakes. Mary Stuart, on the other hand, is a somewhat less well-defined character, forever to be confused with that other Catholic, Bloody Mary (Tudor). Of course, it’s a forgotten irony that Mary provided the heir to the English throne where Elizabeth famously failed, in the form of James I. In a way, Mary succeeded, finally.A strong sense of this historical irony pervades the play, and this production draws on it cleverly. Gambolling within sight of France’s shores, Mary Stuart’s (Heather Oliver) breathless excitement at her restored freedom comes to express at once intense joy and acute panic, since this very same freedom embroils her in a dreaded face-off with Elizabeth (Cliodhna McAllister). The glee of Mortimer’s (William Blair) romantic intimacies with Mary is fed on their dark court intrigues and murderous conspiracy.The perennial conflict climaxes in a pleasing directional touch where, in the third act, the royal rivals battle it out in a circling tete-a-tete contest of head and heart. Every action in this play denotes a motive that belies it: no string serves at a loose end in this world bound thick with double-sidedness. At times not just Mary, but all characters appear to deserve the name “viper”. The choice of costume challenges the moral preconceptions of today’s audience in this respect, by dressing Mary in blue and Elizabeth in a lush, serpent green reminiscent of Eve.The production’s deliberately conventional values (no African relocations here) are in keeping with the play’s 1800 German provenance. Schiller makes fairly rigorous historical demands of his audience: expect to hear the names Babington, Anjou and Burleigh fired in quick succession, for instance. Still, such minor hindrances form a necessary part of the contemporary Elizabethan realpolitik that still plays so very large an equivalent part today. In light of Channel 4’s recent and extremely popular historical drama glorifying Elizabeth I, this production might offer a fascinating and alternative portrayal of this period in English royal history.ARCHIVE: 1st week MT 2005