Mary Said What She Said: Isabelle Huppert’s Queen of Scots is a force of nature

Isabelle Huppert as Mary, Queen of Scots
Isabelle Huppert as Mary, Queen of Scots - Lucie Jansch

Isabelle Huppert made her London stage debut in 1996 in the title role of Mary Stuart, Schiller’s mighty verse drama depicting the final days of the woman also known as Mary, Queen of Scots. In that National theatre revival Anna Massey was Elizabeth I (agonising over her cousin’s fate) but all eyes were on the beautiful French debutant. Alas, however, the critics weren’t much enamoured.

One decried her “jerky, spasmodic vocal delivery and a puppeteerish set of gesticulations”, while the Telegraph’s Charles Spencer was held grimly rapt by the collision of “weird vowel sounds and choppy rhythms of speech like cars in a motorway pile-up”.

Perhaps Huppert, now 71, can afford herself a wry smile as she takes her bows at the Barbican (where she was last seen, in 2016, in an experimental Polish Phedre): she’s playing the French-raised Mary afresh, and in French, in a radically different account that invites us to consider jerky, spasmodic, weird and choppy as crowning glories.

This production by that doyen of the American avant-garde Robert Wilson – which has roamed since its originating premiere at the Théâtre de la Ville, Paris in 2019 – resembles an act of defiance in keeping with the embattled fortitude of its benighted subject.

With an ornate, prose-poem-esque text by African-American author Darryl Pinckney which draws on Mary’s tear-stained letters, it makes few concessions to those not up to speed with her life. Across 90 minutes, we’re subjected to a torrent of words, some recorded, most spoken live, imparted over a quasi classical, often remorseless score by Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi.

Existential horror: Huppert performs the Queen's final moments
Existential horror: Huppert performs the Queen's final moments

“Go as you would to a museum, as you would look at a painting,” Wilson has said when advising the spectator on how to approach his work. And there are times when all you can do – if your eyes are not too busy hastening after the galloping surtitles, your ears not too stuffed with the speed of Huppert’s virtuosic delivery – is gawp. Against a vast screen whose colours shift with a mesmeric intensity akin to the Northern Lights, the actress’s period-dressed essence of regal sangfroid is a stately object of constant fascination.

Mary’s four maidservants were also called Mary; she intones their names often, like a prayer, as if she’s imprisoned even in her companionships. As she approaches the judgement day of the guillotine, there’s much to get off her chest, with mad cackles, broken-record repetitions and parodic curtseys; the queen recalls her first, French husband who died young, her hatred of Scotland, and her passion for her third husband, Lord Bothwell.

Huppert is unflagging, a force of nature – at times simply a babbling mouth, like a tormented soul out of Beckett, but also sweeping across her domain with command. In one remarkable sequence she diagonally advances, then reverses across the stage, as if stuck in a Sisyphean loop of defeat and renewed determination. Here is history in all its peculiar horror, lifted free of text-books and turned into a spectacle of existential suffering.

Until May 12. Tickets:

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