Rebecca Tyson

Fireside Theatre - a new production company founded by Producer Ben Kybett and Director Maddy Trepanier - are an ambitious and imaginative company. Their most notable success was Northanger Abbey, which earned 5 stars from Varsity last Michaelmas (for a production in Selwyn Chapel) and headed to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, when the company was founded. Their latest venture is a production of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart - a tragedy about the political and religious conflict between Queen Elizabeth I and her deposed and imprisoned sister, Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary Stuart is performed in the Round Church, continuing this company's triumph of staging mesmerising theatre in unique settings.

The Round Church is an intriguing venue, and a challenge for a director. Given the pillars circulating the round, the audience’s view is inevitably obstructed at times, but Trepanier works well with the space, directing the action in such a way as to ensure that all sides of the audience were considered, and her choice of venue pays off despite its difficulties. The Round Church is intimate, but it has a quiet grandeur befitting this production, and its powerful but personal portrayl of the queens. The immediacy that such a small, in-the-round setting creates allows the audience to feel close to these women, to feel part of their struggle, while the surrounding stonework lends an austere gravity to the drama, and to the voices of the actors. 

This production embraces the acoustics of its venue, eschewing technical effects in favour of allowing the reverberations of the space to add impact to dramatic scenes. Similarly, lighting is kept simple, with changes in brightness indicating indoor versus outdoor settings, and dimmed lights accompanying the musical scene transitions. The choral pieces which punctuate the production, chosen by Musical Director Piran Venton, are effective; in particular, the mirroring between the opening and closing Byrd numbers reflects the shifting tensions of the play - from the portentous ‘Miserere Mei Deus’ (‘Have Mercy on me, O Lord’) to the plaintive ‘Ne Irascaris Domine’ (‘Be not angry O Lord’). The singers are flawless in these interludes, providing a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack to Mary’s tragedy.

“There is no weak link in this cast, and as a collective they sustain the high stakes of the play.”

Mary is played by Flora Macangus with a lovely steel, a determination and dignity which is only broken in desperation. Macangus infuses this composure with subtle expressions of anxiety one moment and adamance the next. Mary’s early debate with Burleigh is a particular highlight, as Macangus masters a sense of forced self-control, something she later allows to drop in passionate defense of her plight. Against this human warmth stands Vee Tames as the formidable Elizabeth, whose cold anger belies her inner turmoil. Tames plays Elizabeth as overcompensating, in her aggression and irrational action, for her underlying compassion and indecision. Her moments of vulnerability are especially compelling. Both queens are calculating and confident in their own power, but beneath these facades they are scared of each other, and it shows. Macangus and Tames are incredible performers, with great nuance and range, and they shine in these strong leading roles.

Anchored by the outstanding performances of the queens, the rest of the cast have a lot to live up to; thankfully, the ensemble is equally impressive. There is no weak link in this cast, and as a collective they sustain the high stakes of the play. Only the Melville scene falls slightly short, and it's hard to tell whether this is a performance or script fault. Lydia Makrides’ commitment to the role of Kennedy in her affection and grief for Mary is commendable, and the three advisors to Elizabeth - Burleigh (Ben Philipps), Talbot (Matthew Sargent), and Leicester (Jamie Wigley) - were perfectly pitched in opposition to one another. Philipps’s Burleigh is dutiful and dogged, with conviction in his own right and command to follow it through. Sargent’s Talbot is a gentle, older advisor, cautious and kind, torn between his various loyalties. Both are strong performances of clearly established characters, with considerable merit.

Wigley, however, has a more difficult role, and she rises to it admirably. Leicester is conceited and deceitful, playing both queens against one another for his own gain, and trusting nobody while beguiling everyone. Wigley manages to encapsulate all of this; she is composed in the court scenes, flirtatious when alone with Elizabeth, ruthless towards Mortimer. To grapple with such an evasive character, and portray him so well as to keep the audience unsure of where Leicester’s loyalties lie, is Wigley’s great achievement. Similarly deceiving is Jo Heywood’s Mortimer, who shines most in moments of collapse - in laughter, weeping, and a distressing scene of control lost to desire.


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Mountain View

Women reign supreme in Mary Stuart

The entire ensemble work together to dramatise the tensions and intricacies of a story which is as personal as it is political, and in doing so they successfully recreate the pressure of the historical moment. While jean logos may have been anachronistic, the queens’ stunning costumes and the many ruffs - on loan from the RSC - counterbalance this, contributing greatly to the authenticity of the piece, but the cast and crew deserve the ultimate credit. With high quality from simple but effective production choices, sensitive and attentive direction, and an eye for getting the best out of a unique venue, Fireside Theatre are undoubtedly a company worth noting.

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