Juliet Stevenson has been handed an unusual challenge with her latest stage role. The Olivier award-winning actor, best known for her part in the 1994 film Truly, Madly, Deeply, has been charged with the task of playing both Mary, Queen of Scots and her cousin Elizabeth I in a touring production of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart.
At the beginning of each performance, Stevenson and Lia Williams enter the stage not knowing which queen they will be playing that night. The decision is determined by the flip of a coin in front
of a waiting audience.
For Stevenson, who celebrated her 61st birthday last October, the opportunity to play not one but two leading ladies in an industry that tends to leave women behind once they reach their forties is one she says she feels lucky to have been given.
“They are two fantastic roles. For women over the age of 40 getting one fantastic role in the theatre is quite difficult. They do drop away a lot once you get past that age, so to have two is like a double whammy,” she says.
“There are very few roles where women drive the narrative – and they do in this play.”
“I have been really, really lucky. I don’t think that I am experiencing life in the profession at my age as many people do. I know so many wonderful actresses who simply don’t work after the age of 40 or 45. The work falls away and many of them just can’t find the work at all, and if they do it’s tiny roles. There are very few roles where women drive the narrative – and they do in this play.”
The play centres on a fictional meeting between the two warring queens. Opposites on paper but with so much in common, the story of their rivalry is one of the most notorious in British history. Director Robert Icke’s decision to cast both Stevenson and Williams as both queens is far from a gimmick – it is a reflection of how there is nothing logical or inevitable about who ends up in power.
“What’s fascinating is that on the face of it they are polar opposites. Elizabeth is powerful, very much on the back foot, very cautious, very clever, always used her brain and doesn’t really operate from her heart. She takes years and years to make decisions, never does anything on impulse, very authoritarian. Single, never married, childless.
“Then on the other hand you’ve got Mary Stuart, who was married three times, had a child, she was very impulsive, she was very on the front foot, very liberated, very sensual. They are two very different characters but they had a huge amount in common. It is just their circumstances had allowed them and forced them into those positions.
“There’s Elizabeth: powerful, on the throne, treated like a queen but she spent all her childhood in prison and her growing up years. And then you’ve got Mary who is completely the other way around. She spends her childhood and adolescence as a queen being celebrated and adored, pampered, and now she is in prison, so they both know each other’s situation first hand. That’s what’s so interesting about playing the double. They recognise each other and they both know exactly what it is like to be the other.”
Born in Kelvedon in Essex, Stevenson moved around a lot during her childhood with her mother and father, who was an army officer. As a young adult she went to Rada and was part of a new wave of actors to emerge from the academy that included Jonathan Pryce, Alan Rickman, Kenneth Branagh, Imelda Staunton and Fiona Shaw.
Although she has gained fame for TV and film work, Stevenson is known as a stage actor, winning acclaim for roles such as Isabella in Measure for Measure, Madame de Tourvel in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Anna in the UK premiere of Burn This in 1990, and as Paulina in Death and the Maiden at the Royal Court theatre and the West End (1991–92). The latter won her the 1992 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress.
She is now able to be selective about the roles she takes on. “I am really lucky but still quite a lot of the parts I get sent on film are mainly the wife, the mother, the daughter, the PA. They are not pushing the narrative – they are just supporting the man who is driving the narrative.
“You are often bringing on a tray of food and often they are quite two-dimensional as well. They are stereotypical because the writer, who is probably a man, has not really bothered to think about the character in her own right. That really does happen quite a lot, so one of my missions when I am on telly or on film is to make those characters three-dimensional.
“The situation is better than it was 20 years ago perhaps but it is still not nearly good enough. More female writers would definitely change the situation.
“But obviously what matters is the quality of the writing, not the gender. You don’t want bad writers whatever their gender but I do think it would be great if more women felt they could become screenwriters or playwrights, and it is partly about allowing people to think that way and encouraging young women to think about creative writing as a career.”
For the past 15 years Stevenson has been narrating audiobooks and says the job has allowed her to become well acquainted with a string of classic authors. “Most of my reading takes place through recording audiobooks because I read in my own life very slowly and usually for work, so I have done almost all my reading through audiobooks in the past 10 or 15 years – most of George Eliot, all of Jane Austen, most of Henry James, Rose Tremaine, Ian McEwan. I have been introduced to some wonderful books through having to record them for work.
“We think great female roles are something we’re only good at now but when you look at the great classical writing, the 19th century novelists like the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell – all of their central characters are women, and that is because they are writing from what they know, which is why we have to get more female writers on screen and on stage.”
Following the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the Me Too campaign Stevenson says now is the time to open up a debate about the sexist atmosphere on film sets and backstage. She hasn’t directly experienced harassment but says: “I have been working in this industry which is very much dominated by men and where there is a very strong male culture a lot of the time.
“There can be an intimidatory atmosphere on stage or during rehearsals on a film set – certainly I have experienced that. I have stood on a film set waiting for something technical to happen, surrounded by a male crew and heard the camera crew talking about the sexual appeal of each actress in the cast. I nearly died of embarrassment and intimidation and then had to switch on and play the next scene in front of that crew. It’s not physically abusive but it is extremely intimidating. I very much welcome a movement that intelligently looks at it.
“I’m not talking about witch hunts but I am talking about intelligent self-examination, and I would very much welcome men into that conversation because I think it would benefit all of us. It could be liberating for all of us to be examining our culture in that way, I just hope it is possible to sustain it. There’s already a backlash and it is a misogynistic backlash in certain areas and I just hope that we can avoid that and allow this to move on and for everyone to see it as a fantastic opportunity.”
Mary Stuart is at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London, until 31 March, and then tours the UK, including the Lowry, Salford, 17-24 April. Juliet Stevenson’s audiobook recordings are available audible.co.uk
Read a blog by Rudi Dharmalingam who also appears in Mary Stuart here.