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theatre review

Lucy Peacock (left) as Mary Stuart and Seana McKenna as Elizabeth, with members of the company in Mary Stuart.David Hou

Shakespeare and Shaw rule over the summer theatre festivals in Ontario, but, after watching Stratford's thrilling production of Mary Stuart, audiences may well rise up to overthrow one or both of them and place German playwright Friedrich Schiller on the throne.

In this 1800 play that remains fresh as a daisy, Schiller imagines an encounter between the Protestant Elizabeth I and her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, on the day in 1587 before the latter is executed under the authority of the former for plotting to usurp the crown of England.

Under the direction of Stratford artistic director Antoni Cimolino, Schiller's drama has all the sweep of one of William Shakespeare's great history plays, but it has a tighter focus, a more propulsive drive and a mindset that feels as dark and up-to-date as any cable television series. Schiller's brilliant script – translated and adapted here by Peter Oswald – dramatizes not only the surface debates but the private and the public interests, the emotional and the ideological motives behind the choices and chaos of history.

Meanwhile, in the hands of a cast that includes superlative supporting players such as Ben Carlson and Brian Dennehy as, respectively, bloody-minded and wise advisors to the sitting Queen, the oratory is as exciting and thought-provoking as anything in Bernard Shaw's canon. Indeed, the speeches of Elizabeth and Mary and their entourages have an urgency that Shaw's talk frequently lacks – after all, behind the abstract notions of justice and power, a life and perhaps a whole country hangs in the balance.

It's amazing that Mary Stuart is so edge-of-your-seat suspenseful when the outcome is never in doubt – you don't have to have read much history to know Elizabeth will triumph over Mary's machinations. Interestingly, a similar dynamic is evident in the performances – where Seana McKenna's riveting portrayal of the conflicted Tudor decapitates Lucy Peacock's stilted portrayal of the stubborn Stuart.

McKenna is stunning as a powerful woman who uses all the charisma and cruelty at her disposal to deal with her male advisors and admirers, but is shaken by anxiety and even panic in her private moments. Her Elizabeth never really has any ethical qualms about killing Mary, but fears what message the image of a queen executing a queen (and a woman executing a woman) will send to the world. Will it make her and (you sense this is only a secondary concern) England safer – or will it incite the country's secret Catholics to open rebellion in the name of a martyr? It's a question that remains relevant as modern-day states deal with religious fanatics whose extremism is, it is unclear, either a minor irritant or an existential threat.

Peacock makes less out of Mary – indeed, she gives a strangely mannered performance and gasps most of her lines. Thankfully, it's not enough to drag the show down significantly, and neither are the occasional missteps in Cimolino's staging. The director has worked on the Tom Patterson stage – a long catwalk surround by audience on three sides – frequently, but this time his characters often end up in unattractive clumps.

This is the downside of Eo Sharp's otherwise elegant design, which sees the stage surrounded by barbed wire – a nice image that unfortunately renders the playing space thinner than usual.

This clumping, though, also tells us something about Schiller's dramaturgy. He is more interested in the people in power than the people (unlike the more politically nebulous Shakespeare). There are fewer levels of society on display here – and so more elite characters who it would be unseemly to make crouch down for sightline purposes.

What Schiller lacks in scope, he makes up for in balance. One of the best speeches comes from the mercurial Ian Lake as Mortimer, a young, fervent Catholic who wishes to liberate Mary with violence. His praise of Catholicism for its costumes and colours and passion coupled with his condemnation of a Protestant church that "hates the senses, bans the image, worships nothing but the abstract word" was so convincing, I nearly converted on the spot.

It was also a reminder that the struggle between these two religions in Elizabethan England continues to rage, in a transubstantiated form, in the background of 21st-century Canada, perhaps no more so than in the secular churches known as theatres. Skepticism, at times hostility, toward spectacle remains in our historically Protestant institutions. I've argued before that the central difference between Cimolino and his predecessor Des McAnuff is that of words versus images. Is it too much to see them as Stratford's Elizabeth and Mary?