'Mary Stuart' well acted, but dry
New York — 'Mary Stuart' Play by Wolfgang Hildesheimer. English version by Christopher Hol. Directed by Des McAnuf. Lese majesty runs rampant in "Mary Stuart," the grimly absurdist history play by German author and painter Wolfgang Hildesheimer at the Public Theater's LuEsther Hall. Mr. Hildesheimer has written a parodied version of Mary of Scotland's final hours as she awaits execution in the chill confines of an English castle. Although director Des McAnuf keeps the traffic moving in this Dodger Theater production, "Mary Stuart" proves a dry and pointless entertainment.
In a lengthy essay on history and the remote age of absolute monarchy, Mr. Hildesheimer states that the question about Mary's life would have to run: "How did things appear inside an absolute monarch of the 16th century in general, in the ruler of an 'unenlightened' half-savage people in particular, and inside Mary as an individual? This question remains unanswerable, as do all questions about the inner life of a historical figure. . . . Whoever leaves the theater with the question of what Mary was really like, has at least grasped my intention in my portrayal of her."
In Christopher Holmes's fluently colloquial English version of the Hildesheimer text, and in Roberta Maxwell's taut and expressive performance, the Scottish Queen emerges as a figure of unstable intellect and monumental egocentricity. The play opens promisingly with a long scene in which Mary's rambling reverie is interrupted by exchanges with her laconic executioner (played with matter-of-fact irony by Roy Cooper). Mary's past fills her with self-congratulation as she confidently envisions martyrdom and probable sainthood, with nine choirs of angels to welcome her to heaven.
Faced with the demands of a taxing role, Miss Maxwell responds effectively and sometimes affectingly to Mary's shifting moods and preoccupations. An actress of wit, power, and feeling, she can rant or rationalize, cajole or scream for service as the doomed Scottish monarch battles to retain a semblance of the majesty and divine right of which she has already been deprived.
Gradually, the playwright assembles those assigned to serve her and, in the end, to help dispatch her. In the perverse Hildesheimer view, the aides and attendants prove as ruffianly, libidinous, and despicable a lot of rascals as ever infested a royal household. Their servility turns to open sneering. They rob her even as they robe her -- an indignity of which the drugged queen is not unaware.
The final, lurid passages are a farcically ludicrous and bawdy mess. Lacking the wit of a Shaw or the bite of a Brecht (whose attiring scene from "Galileo" he appears to have borrowed for lampoon purposes), Mr. Hildesheimer seems capable only of a grotesque, nightmarish surrealism. With some exceptions, the performance deteriorates as the action progresses. When a group of ordinarily competent American actors dress up in 16th-century costumes and are directed to disport themselves like lusty Elizabethans, watch out! The costumes, incidentally, are by Patricia McGourty. Jim Clayburgh designed the forbidding, stone-walled courtyard where what Mr . Hildesheimer calls "an absurd occurrence" occurs.