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Laugh Like a Queen Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter Learn How Americans Like Their "Mary Stuart"
By MARK BLANKENSHIP

It's hard to imagine it now, especially given the kind of acclaim they've received, but early in Mary Stuart's Broadway run, stars Harriet Walter and Janet McTeer thought the audience was against them. The actresses first tackled Friedrich Schiller's classic 19th-century drama---which stages the rivalry between royal cousins Elizabeth I (Walter) and Mary Queen of Scots (McTeer)---in a lauded production on London's West End in 2005. When the show transferred to the Broadhurst Theater in April, however, the ladies discovered that Americans make very different audiences than Brits.

"We'd be in absolute panic because American audiences laugh in places that English audiences don't," says McTeer. "We felt like we were being laughed at, and we thought, 'Oh God, we're being completely over-the-top.' We would walk home arm in arm crying, saying, 'What are we doing wrong? Let's go have a brandy!"

Soon enough, the actresses, who were both nominated for Tony Awards for their performances, realized that Yanks simply react more vocally than the English, and that the laughter they heard was a sign of deep engagement with a scene. Describe the New York crowds, Walter says, "They move as quickly as we do. One minute, they're crying with us, the next minute they're hating us, the next minute they're laughing with us, the next minute they're laughing at us. And actually, that's the way the play's built. They're just moving along with you."

McTeer adds, "If I'm honest, I find it very charming, because it's very honest and very out there. It's much more Elizabethan, when there were people shouting and screaming, and we Brits have become so reverential and polite. It's like [the Americans] respond to the complexity of the characters in any given moment. They're right there with you instead of sitting back and judging you."

And if any classical playwright demands a boisterous reaction, it's Schiller. His work thunders with conflict, such as the scene in Mary Stuart that imagines a meeting between Elizabeth and Mary, who is accused of plotting to usurp her cousin's crown. As they hurl speeches at one another, the queens suggest much more than two human rulers: They embody the timeless conflict between the power of the state of the will of the individual.

That operatic passion has informed this production---"We're both trying to give large performances," says McTeer---and the actresses believe it's also what draws audiences to the play. Walter says, "It's like a thirst. There are lots of plays, and there's TV and there's films, where you can go and see people picking their noses and shuffling about, and being 'real' and 'truthful,' but it is lovely when there's an imperative to act up in a play like this. You can't fall back. You can't drop your energy. It's almost like a musical."

And when a play dares to have massive ambition, she continues, then it often says something important. In Mary Stuart, which alternately depicts Elizabeth as a well-meaning queen and a frightened narcissist intent on destroying the cousin she fears, Walter finds a striking parallel to our own political climate. "It's interesting to listen to someone like Elizabeth, who has basic moral integrity, but whose regime is equivocal and moderating even as it tries to be just," she says. "Post Obama's election, there's quite a lot of urgency in that, because we have quite a lot of hope invested in a new leader."

McTeer says that for her, this is just the type of meaty, cosmic stuff that makes drama thrilling. "Our lives are so bloody pedestrian aren't they?" she asks. "We spend a large portion of the day making food for children and paying the gas bill, and we don't have much time to think about the grand, important stuff of life. And that's why these big plays are so wonderful to watch. For a minute, you sit there and you're going, 'This is about life and death and power and politics and sex and women and men in suits." Pausing for a moment, she adds, "It's just so exciting. It lifts you out of your everyday world."

Learn more about Mary Stuart
Author: Mark Blankenship
Mark Blankenship has written for The New York Times, Variety, The Village Voice, and many others. He also edits The Critical Condition, an award-winning pop-culture criticism blog. (www.thecriticalcondition.com)