Mary Said What She Said – Barbican Theatre | Review

Mary Said What She Said, but what did she say? Isabelle Huppert projects well, albeit in French, but she is let down by surtitles which could, at least from my vantage point, barely be deciphered against the backdrop of very bright stage lighting. The positioning of the surtitles was curious – there were caption screens on either side of the stage, and as Huppert’s Mary, Queen of Scots was mostly stood centre stage, I had a choice between trying to read the captions and watching the performance.

Isabelle Huppert in Mary Said What She Said
Isabelle Huppert in Mary Said What She Said

Not that there was that much to watch on a completely bare stage that didn’t even as much as a chair for Mary to sit on. There was a noticeable pattern in that Huppert would gradually begin to speak increasingly faster until there was a torrent of words, which would reach a crescendo, and then, a moment of silence, before the next ‘scene’ would begin. Accordingly, what surtitles I could see were sometimes being flashed too quickly to read in full, to keep pace with the speed of delivery. From what I could gather, some of the monologue was repeated several times over, presumably for emphasis, though quite why Hubbert couldn’t simply emphasise what she was saying and say it once, and at normal conversational speed, was frankly beyond me.

Well, there is one theory – that this Mary was, in a word, bonkers, and enters into an increasingly hysterical and deluded state. In any event, the play is difficult to follow, with a script that makes little sense, and not just because it’s in another language – it seems to be deliberately discombobulating. There seemed to be multiple Marys in this Mary’s life – was it a necessary prerequisite to be called Mary to be one of Mary’s servants?

A near-relentless set of foreground music (as opposed to background music – this stuff was sometimes very loud indeed) didn’t, in the end, add all that much to the show. There’s also a mixture of pre-recorded and live speech, the former resulting in Huppert standing on stage pontificating as though she were in a silent movie. There was, mind you, a flash of sprightly choreography in a late scene, but by then, my level of interest was very much on a downward spiral.

The pre-show is a short video on a loop, showing a dog that literally chases its own tail, running around in circles. What relevance this has to anything that happens in the play itself is beyond my understanding. Isabelle Huppert puts in an energetic and enthusiastic performance. But the production is essentially too successful in creating distancing effects through harsh lighting and ice cold characterisation.

2 gold stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Academy Award nominee Isabelle Huppert reunites with American theatre visionary Robert Wilson, charting the life and torments of Mary Stuart, the sovereign whose passions cost her a crown.

Written by Wilson’s longtime collaborator, novelist and playwright Darryl Pinckney, featuring an evocative classical score b y the Italian composer Ludovico Einaudi, the whirlwind stream of thought contains the testimony of Mary Queen of Scots, drawn from her letters about her involvement in some of the most notorious plots of her time. She is lying, but on the eve of execution, has fear persuaded her that she is telling the truth?

7:45pm on Fri 10 and Sat 11 May, 2:30pm on Sat 11 May, 3:00pm on Sun 12 May 2024
Barbican Theatre
90 minutes (no interval)
The show is performed in French with English surtitles

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