Maria Stuarda The Gaiety Theatre
A Little Cloud
Bewley’s Café Theatre
There is no shortage in very recent history of beautiful, self-centred, manipulative women being idealised and even idolised.
Nor is it anything new. We had it 400 years ago in the case of Mary Stuart, queen of France, then of Scotland, who found herself outwitted and out-politicked by her cousin Elizabeth of England – aka Gloriana.
Mary was also arguably one of the most stupid women in history, as beautiful, manipulative women often are. But in this case she was a queen, in those days a high-ranking politician. And again arguably, Scotland paid the price for her stupidity and selfishness.
Her story has been told in music and fiction many times over, with Mary in various guises as heroic victim, religious warrior, martyr and tragic lover. The harsher facts seldom appear.
Friedrich Schiller’s play concentrated on the martyred victim end of things, and it was this that inspired Donizetti’s 1835 opera Maria Stuarda, given a new and fairly magnificent production by Irish National Opera (INO) at the Gaiety, and touring to Cork, Wexford and Limerick.
Director Tom Creed gives it a modern setting and sensibility, subtly suggesting our current troubled world, with Elizabeth first appearing in full Union be-flagged regalia, while Maria, in clumsy, ill-fitting boots and a grubby flowered dress, wanders the meadow around her prison in Fotheringhay Castle, which will soon see her execution.
My only argument with that is the fictionalised scene where the two women meet and Mary swallows her pride to beg for her life. Elizabeth is in two minds – with arguments on Mary’s behalf by the Earl of Shrewsbury, and against her from High Treasurer William Cecil.
Also in the mix is Robert, Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth’s favourite (and possible lover) and here shown as infatuated with the royal prisoner. Elizabeth is costumed as a dominatrix for the scene which is a bit distracting, although the always glorious score isn’t overwhelmed.
We end in surging tragedy as Mary sweeps to the block wrapped in a flag of the Cross of St Andrew, Scotland’s emblem, having bade farewell to the supporters demonstrating for her release. Reality crashes in the deeply moving sequence, with Tara Erraught’s always superb mastery of emotion as Mary soaring above the chorus of fearful, frenzied Scots.
Anna Devin and Amy Ní Fhearraigh alternate in the role of Elizabeth. I saw Ní Fhearraigh, who showcased her rising reputation to no small degree.
Arthur Espiritu brings clarity as well as intensity to the tenor role of Leicester, and bass Callum Thorpe makes a wonderfully impressive Shrewsbury to baritone Giorgio Caoduro’s coldly intense Cecil.
Mezzo Gemma Ní Bhriain completes the leads as Mary’s attendant Anna.
The INO orchestra is conducted on this occasion by artistic director Fergus Shiel. That’s the problem with being an AD, we’ve missed his sensitivity in the pit. Katie Davenport is responsible for both set and costumes, which give a quirky nod to the 17th century, and the lighting is by Sinéad McKenna.
Patricia Browne’s adaptation of Joyce’s A Little Cloud (from Dubliners) is actually rather too faithful to the original. In the Ireland of 2022 and the world of all-enveloping, invasive social media, it’s just not possible for Browne’s Tommy (“Little Chandler”) to be quite so naive and ignorant of the world as Joyce painted him at the turn of the 20th century.
In Browne’s version, Chandler is a para-legal, and meets his old school friend Ignatius Gallaher in the Shelbourne. Gallaher is a “sub-editor” with Rolling Stone, specialising in celebrity interviews, having abandoned his foreign correspondent role.
Browne does catch the original Joycean implications that Gallaher’s success may be largely in his own imagination, but Little Chandler’s wide-eyed ignorance of the worlds of New York and Paris is a bit forced.
The denouement, though, of Chandler’s arrival home to a complaining wife, crying baby, and his own jealous inability to compete as a writer with his old school friend is well caught.
It’s an in-house production in association with Judder Theatre at Bewley’s Café Theatre, directed by Vincent Patrick, who also plays Gallaher, with Stephen Kelly as Little Chandler. Geraldine Crowley is the wife, and Dympna Heffernan is Chandler’s fellow para-legal clerk. The design is by James Donnelly, lit by Colm Maher, with sound by Brian Gallagher.
This lunchtime production runs until June 18.