Showing this month at the The Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is the play King Elizabeth. Written and directed by the Gamm’s Artistic Director, Tony Estrella, King Elizabeth is a 21st-century adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s 18th-century Mary Stuart, about the imposing 16th-century Queen Elizabeth I of England and Mary, Queen of Scots. The play stars Jeanine Kane as Elizabeth and Marianna Bassham as Mary in lead roles opposite each other.
Focused on the conflicts of politics, gender, religion, and personal and civic loyalties, King Elizabeth is a striking depiction of a battle of wills between the two queens. Much of this is found in the very name itself. It’s difficult to dismiss the change of title from Schiller’s own focus on Mary to Estrella’s focus on Elizabeth. The title also hints at the broader appeal of the play itself in challenging norms and using history to question social issues of our current cultural moment.
This is a play about navigating identity politics as a ruler.
Most poignant is the central anachronism, adopted from Schiller’s own play: the dramatic meeting of the two queens. Elizabeth and Mary never met in person, which has led to much speculation. As Estrella notes, “Schiller’s genius was to fill that hole with a great ol’ fashioned knock-down-drag-out brawl.” Estrella takes this to the next level, crafting a psychological drama between the women.
Gender is brought to center stage in this production. Elizabeth and Mary are forced to navigate the world of politics so often populated, regulated, and dominated by men. This was especially true in the sixteenth century, but continues in the present. Estrella’s production brings this notion to the foreground of audience minds.
One of the most compelling moments in the play is Elizabeth’s speech in Scene 6, as a mob rallies to await the Queen’s decision about Mary’s execution. Elizabeth looks upon a locket with Mary’s picture in it, addressing her cousin:
Oh, Mary, tell me what, in God’s name, am I?
Old Talbot says I’m a tree. [She smiles.]
I’m tired of being a metaphor.
And you? Would you be a martyr?
This moment encapsulates the central tension of the play: Elizabeth and Mary locked in a duel for identity. But these foils vie for their identities in a man’s world.
Those keen to history will also find many Easter eggs in King Elizabeth. For example, at one point, Elizabeth’s advisor Lord Burleigh jokes, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome queen?” This moment echoes the same (not joking) question King Henry II supposedly (in oral legend) asked to instigate the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. There’s also an unsettling aspect to Burleigh’s line, since it’s left ambiguous whether he means Mary or Elizabeth.
The title King Elizabeth also holds a nice allusion to the queen’s speeches, filled with invocations of her role as a king in juxtaposition to her female identity. In one of the most famous instances, in her Speech to the Troops at Tillbury, Elizabeth says, “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too….”
Yet no audience of the play would see this Elizabeth, or her counterpart Mary, as feeble. Both Kane and Bassham present formidable figures on the stage. We do see both characters in their most vulnerable moments, but we see them at their most fierce moments, too. Kane and Bassham are a duo worth watching fill the stage.
At its heart, King Elizabeth probes notions of government, loyalty, status, social issues, as well as personal and collective identity. All of these ebb and flow throughout the play. There is no denying the impact of these themes in the wake of the Clinton-Trump election cycle of 2016. Many of these themes are even more pronounced in the Trump presidency of 2017.
The drama centers on figures from the sixteenth century, but it surely speaks to our own lives in the twenty-first century. For this, Estrella’s King Elizabeth is a preeminent production.