A Tiny Mini Rant About 'Mary Stuart', Intellect and Womanhood

A couple of years ago, when I was still in drama school, I managed to get myself a last-minute ticket to see Mary Stuart at the Almeida. All my classmates who'd seen it raved about it, and one of them said they thought Lia Williams' performance especially would inspire me and that she is the kind of actor I could grow into. (Huge compliment.)

So I rushed there from school (where I was in high-intensity training about fifty hours a week), got to the theatre, got a ticket (yay! they were hard to come by), peeled off the several layers that were keeping me warm in my trek across rush-hour London, settled in the warm and comfy theatre, and...

Reader, I fell asleep.

So sleepy...

To be clear, it is not because the show was boring. Lia Williams' performance as Queen Elizabeth I was indeed #inspo-worthy and the acting was great and the adaptation was great, but just reread the paragraph above if you can't see why I might have been a little bit sleepy.

So I left at interval, because the actors could almost definitely see that I was snoozing during their masterpiece and I didn't want to be rude. I bought the play text on the way out so that I could enjoy it when I wasn't so tired.

I finally cracked open the text to properly read yesterday. (I know, I know. But so often as an actor your reading gets limited to plays you can pull monologues from, so this took a back seat.) And a couple of things in the front matter really raised my hackles before I'd even started on the play text.

The first thing that got me going was the opening sentence in director-adaptor Robert Icke's preface: "Nothing terrifies actors like verse."

Preface to Icke's adaptation of 'Mary Stuart'

Speak for yourself, Robert. And stop perpetuating the stereotype that actors are all too airy-fairy and just so damn adorably creative that we get all trembly at the first sign of intellectual or technical rigour. Yeah, some actors are terrified by verse (dialogue that has some element of consistent poetic rhythm, which in English is usually iambic pentameter). But some actors eat verse for breakfast, and are the smartest people I know. Both the verse-nerds and the verse-averse can be great actors.

The idea that you can't be intellectual and creative is deeply misinformed and personally hurtful. I've been really stung by teachers and family alike questioning whether I can be an actor if I'm smart. And there is a kind of intellect that shuts down creativity - that wants to sit at a distance and critique, that wants to have all the answers before being willing to jump into the flow. But I know personally when I'm at my best I know how to switch off that type of intellect and jump into the intellect that supports me and really lets me fly - that devours technical and dramaturgical and verbal complexity in order to support my creativity, not to shut it down. And great, smart, supportive teachers, both here and in the States, have shown me how to do that.

Anyway, Icke goes on to discuss his thoughts on verse, and how he's used it in this adaptation. And his approach to verse is interesting, and I appreciate the preface as a preparation for how to engage with his play. But from that intro, it felt a bit paternalistic. "Don't worry, tiny trembly actor, I have the answers."

The second thing that bothered me was the choice of quotes on the front page. They chose to include Donald Trump's thoughts on women.

Donald Trump.

On women.

I gotta say, that felt like a slap in the ladyhood. Who on earth thought that I, a woman, would want to think about King Sexist Baby's thoughts on womanhood, before reading a play that celebrates two glorious, nuanced, interesting historical women? Maybe they thought that Trump's patronising, also paternalistic thoughts on women (basically, "the smart ones pretend to be dumb and needy") are somehow disproved or contradicted by the portrayal of Mary Stuart and Queen Elizabeth I that follows. Or maybe they didn't think about what a woman would think. But it rubbed me up the wrong way, big time.

the quotes page before the play text

I'm loving reading the rest of the play, by the way. The adaptation (and its use of verse) is good. And it's such a fascinating historical relationship between two powerhouses who may have never met in real life.

But I just gotta say, you can be a woman, and smart, and a good actor. All those things can be simultaneously true without needing to be hidden. I humbly submit myself as an example. And, leagues above me, Lia Williams. And, possibly, Queen Elizabeth I.

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