Professor of Theatre Neil Blackadder never anticipated directing the historical drama “Mary Stuart.” The play, originally written in German verse in 1800, recounts the last days of Mary, Queen of Scots, cousin to Elizabeth I, then queen of England.
“If you had asked me a few years ago if I ever saw myself directing it, I would have said no,” Blackadder said.
However, a new translation of the work and recent productions of the play in London and on Broadway made the language more contemporary. It removed the traditional trappings of sixteenth-century England and led Blackadder to bring the play to Knox (where it will be performed next week as the fall mainstage production).
“It made what I had remembered … into a fast moving, political thriller,” Blackadder said.
Despite being written in 1800 about events taking place in the 1500s, the production continues to have political relevance.
“It’s about political decision making that’s applicable to about any era,” Blackadder said. He pointed to scenes where Elizabeth is consulting with her advisors, all of whom offer a different opinion.
“She says, ‘leave me, I have to figure it out for myself,’” he said. “That’s what any political leader has to do. They’re the ones who have to make the decision.”
The play centers on Elizabeth’s decision of whether or not to execute Mary. Although the rival queen poses a threat, taking her life could backfire politically.
“The confrontation … is a fascinating one,” Blackadder said. “They both have some right on their side.”
Blackadder also viewed the play as offering a new perspective to current theatre students, noting that drama written in earlier centuries is often thought of as less interesting. Producing a play re-written as a political thriller, Blackadder said, can change such opinions.
“It’s broadening people’s horizons,” he said.
Designing in the abstract
It’s not only the themes of the play that will feel modern — the costumes and set will as well. The male characters will all be dressed in business suits, while the scenery was left intentionally abstract.
“What [Associate Professor of Theatre and set designer] Craig Choma and I both agreed on fairly quickly is that what we didn’t want to get into was suggesting castle walls and thrones,” Blackadder said. Instead, he wanted to focus on the underlying political thriller by removing specific references to the time period.
This resulted in a stage consisting of rising platforms, offering a wide variety of heights for the actors to work with. Determining how the characters stood in relation to one another, Blackadder said, was a crucial part of the rehearsal process.
Bringing drama to life
For Blackadder, the rehearsal process was one of the most intriguing parts of the production. He described many of the scenes as “gripping” and noted the complicated relationship that had to be developed between Mary and Elizabeth.
“The confrontation … is a fascinating one,” he said. “They both have some right on their side.”
Although the play is historically inaccurate (in real life Mary and Elizabeth never met), Blackadder believes the events create necessary tension in the work.
“You’ve got Mary against Elizabeth, which is also Protestantism against Catholicism, which is also Scotland against England,” he said. “It gets you into some important details of history.”