Words: Tahnee Robinson

[At the OffStreet Arts blog, we’re launching this cool new idea: late reviews! It’s gonna take off! Belatedly! No, actually, apologies to QSE; this one got lost in the email vaults. Better late than never! — Ed.]

Under the direction of Christina Koch, the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble has tried something new with their production of Mary Stuart. The parameters of the project are simple, but daunting; they are designed to push the ensemble to their limits and explore the possibilities of pulling a production together very quickly. The actors — with their lines already down — have had one week together to rehearse.

The choice of venue, the University of Queensland’s Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio, and the limited budget initially give the feeling of a high school or university production executed by consummate professionals. Angel Kosch’s costumes are creative and effective, but up close it’s evident that they have been restricted by financial concerns — Johancée Theron’s Queen Elizabeth is, I’m sure, wearing someone’s formal gown from the late 1990s. However, the professionalism of the company quickly overshadows this effect. Belinda Ward’s set is quite basic, too: a set of steps and a throne, and a lot of space for the actors to occupy, making maximum use of the Studio’s multiple stage entrances. The choice to include live music is very wise: the violin, cello and vocals by Imogen Eve and Wayne Jennings adds a level of polish that would be lacking if they had elected to use only prerecorded sounds.

Friedrich Schiller is, perhaps, a strange choice for such a project. Peter Oswald’s Tony-nominated version of the German original is lengthy and complex. However, for a Shakespeare ensemble there is a definite logic to the choice. The play is delivered largely in iambic pentameter, and the scheming political plot contains turns within turns, and layers of betrayal. It feels somewhat like a Shakespearean farce turned terribly serious.

The commitment of the cast, as a whole, is evident; there are a couple of fumbled lines but these are handled so as not to interrupt the flow. Some of the members are veteran Thespians, and it shows: Rob Pensalfini as the Earl of Leicester is the centrepoint of all this political scheming, and he executes each turn with a baffling conviction that is key to the moral ambiguity of the play. We are never quite sure that we understand what Leicester actually wants (other than to survive the narrative with his head attached) and it remains unclear whether he really knows, either. Flloyd Kennedy as Hanna, Mary’s loyal handmaid, is another standout. A guest to the ensemble, Kennedy’s part could be mistaken as decorative; however, she is flawlessly believable, drawing your attention while remaining unobtrusive. Nick James, an apprentice to the company last year and now a member of the core ensemble, plays a commanding Mortimer, who, on Schiller’s spectrum of reason to romanticism, is perhaps the character most driven by passion. James has just come from playing Lysander opposite Rebecca Murphy (Mary, Queen of Scots) for QSE’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. During the post-performance Q&A session the actors openly speculate as to the effect this may have had on their rapport together for Mary Stuart.

The Q&A, held after every performance, is an intriguing exercise for the audience; it adds a layer to the experience of seeing the production that, under other circumstances, might be unwelcome. Instead you feel like you have become part of an intriguing theatrical experiment. The company is quite open about the potential pros and cons of doing a production this way. For a play as complex as Mary Stuart there are, undoubtedly, both. This method allows a certain rawness that might otherwise be polished off with weeks of rehearsing and workshops, as the actors come to expect the ways in which their counterparts will deliver and move. The downside is the slight suspicion that the actors are, occasionally, unsure about their characters’ motivations. While Schiller and Oswald have built a deliberate level of ambiguity into the play, if the actors are indecisive it can reveal a lack of conviction that’s not always part of the character.

MARY STUART ran at the Geoffrey Rush Drama Studio at the University of Queensland from 2 to 5 October, 2013.

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