Tonight I'm in Chichester, watching a new production of Schiller's historical epic Wallenstein. The 30 years' war isn't a period about which we Brits have many preconceptions (big boots, big hair, mud and muskets?), so liberties can be taken, and that's all to the good.
Schiller's most frequently revived tragedy, however, is Mary Stuart - Phyllida Lloyd's intense production is angling for Tonys on Broadway, while you only have until tomorrow to catch Terry Hands' sizzling Welsh production, dark and twisty as a thriller.
The friendly Schiller scholar sitting next to me in Mold not only had a useful steer about Mike Poulton's adaptation ('very free') but also about modern German productions. He noted that we heritage-happy Brits keep the plays in period settings. Do Germans treat their national tragedian with similar reverence, I asked? Hell, no. Their stagings are assertive and interventionist.
Mary Stuart, which centres on the Tudor smackdown between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, presents a particular problem for the Brits. Our image of Elizabeth is so strongly fixed that experimentation is constrained. The monarch was queen of brand, and developed so strong an iconography that 450 years on we still think: pale face, stern expression, ruff and farthingale. It is difficult for British audiences to look beyond the icon.
Recent film versions of Elizabeth's life have all contained scenes of ambiguous epiphany: Elizabeth's assumption into the role of Gloriana. Cate Blanchett, Helen Mirren and Ann-Marie Duff have at moments of crisis been obliged to forgo their flirty informality and climb into the costume of England's Virgin. Face plastered white, head transfixed by ruff and wig, skirts encrusted with gem and thread, wide and unyielding as a mountain range. This is the face of power, but a power that imprisons the woman who yields it.
Schiller also fits this template - he presents Elizabeth as a victim of her own stratagems, and the more cunningly she bolsters her own position against Mary, Queen of Scots, the more firmly her humanity is subsumed in the role of queen and its formal paranoia. In Lloyd's production, Harriet Walter's elegantly pinched face looks out from atop the restrictions of her dark, plush costumes, as if marvelling at Mary's freedom of movement. Claire Price, a sensational Elizabeth in Hands' production, is trapped even more firmly. At her first appearance, she wears not so much a frock as a gilded piece of furniture - she will later step out of it, and we'll see that it's perfectly self-supporting. If Elizabeth falters, the frocks might rule by themselves.
It may take a brave British director to mess with these images. They have been around for a long time: the earliest popular play about Elizabeth was written soon after her death. Thomas Heywood's If You Know Not Me, You Know Nobody is a throbbing testament to the beleaguered Protestant monarch. When Pepys saw a production some 60 years later, he was moved despite himself, but argued that the costumes told the story: 'the play is merely a puppet play,' he complained, 'acted by living puppets.' I've enjoyed watching Elizabeth portrayed on stage as history's marionette, but perhaps it's time for designers to forgo the farthingale and create a new line of iconography?
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