For a moment, there's a brief lilt of classical music, a spotlight on an elegant tapestry, and the glimmer of hope -- and then the crushing sound of a cell door slamming shut. It's an abrupt introduction to Mary Stuart's world, a place where wire fences incongruously mesh with Elizabethan costuming. It's also a good way for the Phoenix Theatre Ensemble to kick off their new season with Glyn Maxwell's The Lifeblood, for it allows them to show both the beauty in this British poet's dialogue and the dark intrigue of his drama. It's also a chance to mix the broad strokes of the plot -- the delicious machinations of spymaster Francis Walsingham (Craig Smith) to find an excuse to execute former Queen Mary (Elise Stone) -- with their subtle exchanges.
The play starts deep into the eighteenth year of Mary's imprisonment/banishment in a modest mansion in Staffordshire (a place where "even the name is a form of punishment"). Though she keeps up her own appearance, her tapestries are damp and in disrepair, and Sir Amyas Paulet (Mark Waterman), her bitter jailer (as much a prisoner as she), has just sent away all of her staff, save for her loyal (although also bitter) aide, Claude Arno (Joseph J. Menino). Unable to physically prevent the deterioration around her, Mary turns to her hopes and dreams, seizing on a cypher provided by Thomas Gorge (Jason O'Connell) to help her communicate an escape. She becomes a woman of letters and subterfuge, and her every insult and thought is parsed and hidden beneath her broad smile, a tact that Elise Stone well embodies in the role. Though she stands diminutively, she cuts her enemies down ruthlessly, as when she remarks to Paulet, who has been reading her letters, "The ink is acid, so read them closely, dear." How comically caustic. Unfortunately, Sir Gorge actually works as a double-agent for Walsingham, and though he repents his betrayal later, after falling for the beautiful queen -- "Did you fuck her?" roars the delightful Walsingham, a crude yet absolutely methodical villain -- Mary's fate is sealed.
Robert Hupp's staging goes a long way to make all these betrayals work: he uses the shadows of the background to present ominous figures listening in during the happier moments of the first few acts, has them creep to the foreground, flittering from under the stairs and behind the wire fence. The space never changes, but Hupp's use of it keeps changing the way in which we perceive Mary's circumstances: as with the classical music that opens the show, there's the hint of beauty, a beauty which is stripped away more and more until Mary is left standing alone on the stage, desperation snaking its way into her voice, as she pleads with us -- the audience -- to exonerate her. (This neat trick is done by seating Walsingham and his fellow jurors behind the audience.)
The play rests on Mary's shoulders, and Stone's mix of sarcasm, sadness, and stubbornness carry that weight rather well. It should come as no surprise, though, that after her eventual beheading, the play falls apart: the final scene magnifies some of the inconsistencies in acting that are glossed over by Maxwell's clever writing. This brief moral of an ending doesn't ruin the show, but it does weaken The Lifeblood, and that's a shame, for it otherwise runs so clearly.