Mary Stuart - Interview with Rudi Dharmalingam

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We speak to actor Rudi Dharmalingam about the new play Mary Stuart, a play where “every single character is fighting for their lives.”

Actor Rudi Dharmalingam has graced the stages of Broadway and the West End. Performing in shows like The History Boys at the National Theatre, X at the Royal Court and Hamlet at the Barbican with Benedict Cumberbatch, he is working once more with esteemed director and writer Robert Icke in his new adaptation of Mary Stuart, which arrives at the Almeida this month.

London Calling: What is the story of Mary Stuart?

Rudi Dharmalingam: It charts the last few days of Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots) in prison before she is executed. She is Catholic and has been incarcerated by Queen Elizabeth I who is frightened Mary will cause a rebellion and take away her crown.

We are looking at post reformation England where Protestantism (Church of England) is now the dominant religion in England. Catholicism has been placed on the side lines and is deemed a criminal act. Elizabeth I is a bastard queen. Her father was Henry VIII. Her mother was Anne Boleyn. Henry beheads Anne after being disappointed she could not give him a male heir. The Pope refuses to grant the annulment of Henry’s previous marriage to Catherine of Aragon, which starts the beginning of the Reformation. Divorce is deemed a criminal offence by the Catholic Church so they have ostracised England and the Pope has excommunicated the current queen Elizabeth I.

LC: Although the play focuses on historical events, this production is set in the contemporary world. What is the play saying about politics today?

RD: It took us twenty minutes on the first day of rehearsals before we started talking about Brexit. We are on the verge of isolation from the rest of Europe. That was very much the situation during Elizabeth’s reign. In the late sixteenth century, England was isolated from the majority of Europe because Catholicism was the dominant religion there. We discussed the similarities but essentially as actors we have to hone in and focus on late sixteenth century politics and the text.

LC: Director and writer Robert Icke has adapted this play from German playwright Friedrich Schiller’s original text written in 1800. What does Icke’s adaptation focus on?

RD: I’ve never worked on a show that is so fundamentally about the power of debate. The text is still in verse, which is paramount to the story because as with any verse text, it has an underlying pulse, a forward thinking trajectory, which propels the story at a pace. The stakes are high for every single character involved. Every character is fighting for their lives. It’s all about the text and the power of words. We as actors don’t have anywhere to hide; the verse is absolutely pertinent to the story. Characters are putting across their opinions and perspectives in order to save their skins.

LC: You play the character of Mortimer who is in effect a double agent working for both Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart. How historically accurate is this character?

RD: The original playwright Schiller created the character of Mortimer. He didn’t actually exist. However, he is symbolic of a growing contingency of Catholic missionaries that had been exiled from England and had been forced to practise their Catholicism in Europe. There was a blossoming group of Catholic missionaries who had been trained by Catholic priests on the continent, specifically Rheims in France, which was a hotbed of Catholic radicalisation. Their mission was to kill Elizabeth I, release Mary Stuart from prison and restore the old religion in England once more. Mortimer is representative of that community. He believes it is his destiny to release Mary Stuart from prison and kill Elizabeth. There’s a confidence and self-assurance about Mortimer, but there’s an ignorance and naivety as well.

Photo credit: Miles Aldridge

LC: Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams are swapping the roles of Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I each night. How does that work?

RD: We toss a coin at the beginning of each show and that decides who is playing Elizabeth and Mary. It’s exciting and also very scary! It must be terrifying for Juliet and Lia. It has equal consequences for the rest of the cast because we don’t know who we are going to playing against. The whole cast have to be open, freethinking and malleable.

LC: Does that mean your character Mortimer is responding differently dependent on who is performing each character?

RD: Both Lia and Juliet have very different energies. The essence of both characters is still there, and they are still performing the same text. Any actor playing a role is going to bring something unique without it being a conscious decision. You just have to be open to the fact that it is going to be very different every single night. You have to be on your toes, comfortable with the text, what your character wants and play it with a high degree of variability.

Mary Stuart runs from 2 December to 21 January 2017 at the Almeida Theatre. For more information and tickets please see their website.