The cast of Mary Stuart, the surprise hit of this year’s Stratford Festival Photos by Don Dixon

Mary Stuart takes Stratford by storm

  • July 27, 2013

STRATFORD, ONT. - The surprise hit at this year’s Stratford Festival has been captivating audiences by using the Catholic-Protestant divide of 1500s England and Scotland as a mirror of post-9/11 society.

Mary Stuart has been the overwhelming success story at the famed festival since it opened May 31.

“It’s really grabbed people’s interest and it’s become probably the hottest ticket of the season,” said Ann Swerdfager, the festival’s publicity director. “It’s very difficult to get a ticket for it. It is a surprise and a delightful surprise.”

Performed in the Tom Patterson Theatre, which seats 480 on three sides of a thrust stage, Mary Stuart has already been extended twice to meet demand.

Like Swerdfager, the festival’s artistic director Antoni Cimolino — who doubles as director of Mary Stuart — is also pleasantly surprised by the success of the lesser known title which hadn’t been performed at Stratford since 1982.

“I wanted to do a play that was about politics and religion during this difficult time,” said Cimolino. “I didn’t anticipate that it would do this well. I was kind of shocked but I’m pleasantly shocked.

“(Audiences) see in it not just a mirror of the political situations they see today post-9/11,” he said. “They also understand the emotional cost of trying to make the right decision when there is no readily available right decision to be had. People really want to see something that demands the most of them.”

Written in the 1800s by German playwright Friedrich Schiller, Mary Stuart details the final days of Mary, the Catholicqueen of Scotland. After marrying the man who assassinated her husband, Mary fled her kingdom seeking refuge in England, where her cousin, Elizabeth, ruled the Protestant land. Rather than refuge, Mary is imprisoned, denied any access to her Catholic faith and ultimately put to death in 1587.

“It looks at these two female monarchs at a time when that wasn’t the thing to be,” said Cimolino. “It studies issues of security, the price of security, it looks at democracy (and) it examines religious fanaticism. So it’s a play that seems to be especially appropriate for the times that we live in today.”

When writing the original script, Schiller relied on historical records to produce an accurate recreation of Mary’s imprisonment. He added a fictional meeting between Mary and Elizabeth — historically that never happened.

Lucy Peacock, who plays Mary, believes it is the timelessness of the conflict in the play that makes it so popular.

“It’s incredible how relevant it is and it was written hundreds of years ago,” she said. “The message is look at your politicians, listen to your politicians, look at your faith, listen to your faith and be reasonable.”

Although Peacock and Cimolino said they felt the timelessness of the play is rooted in the script, credit has to be given to the staging decisions of Cimolino.

“I was trying to, in the props and in the setting, to get a modern sensibility but in the costumes have period sensibility and let those two things be seen in the light of the other,” said Cimolino, 52. “I felt that the costumes, the things closest to the bodies of the actors, should be in period and should have a sense of the grandeur of these people. But the things around them, the furniture, the barbed wire that is on the stage, the cross, is more abstract and comes from all different periods.”

Before beginning the production Cimolino had a cross laid into the flooring of the stage for a very specific, though subtle, purpose. “The cross is central to everything that happens in this play so I wanted it there all night long,” he said.

“The cross is very interesting because it’s the Protestant cross versus the Catholic crucifix. So the difference between the two faiths is what I was trying to get at by putting the cross on the ground; not to represent Christ on the stage but to represent our interpretation of faith.”

The barbed wire which remains wrapped around the outer stage throughout the play is another subtle metaphor Cimolino worked into the production. While it symbolizes that Stuart is imprisoned in the castle, it also represents the prison of power which both queens face when trying to balance their morality against the demands of those around them.

These little artistic sublets allow the audience to become absorbed into such a heavy-themed, relatively low-action, dialogue- driven drama, Cimolino says.

Jonathan Goldbloom, who saw the play for the first time this summer, said viewing today’s conflicts play out on the stage made the production powerful.

“This is a must see,” said Goldbloom. “This is a play that is relevant, that puts modern issues into a historical context. It’s issues we are dealing with here in Canada on a day-to-day basis, whether we see it in the Middle East or whether we see that here, this is a play that gets you thinking about it.”

All remaining performances of Mary Stuart, which runs until Sept. 28, are sold out, although Cimolino and Swerdfager hinted that additional shows may be added.

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