Once in a while, something nifty can come of reduced circumstances. Such is the case with the stunningly stripped-down new production of Mary Stuart at the Broadhurst Theater, which I saw right before it opened to rave reviews on Sunday. Faced with a budget that wouldn't allow for full-on Elizabethan excess, British costume and set designer Anthony Ward opted to outfit only the play's two queens in period dress. The guys—and there's a veritable horde of them—merely wear business suits. In other words, there's no Jonathan Rhys Meyers equivalent trotting around in gonzo Tudor finery. And though it's a bit jarring at first, the juxtaposition of creaky versus modern totally works.
McTeer as Mary Queen of Scotts; Ward's costume sketch.
According to Ward, who was also responsible for the look of the original London production at the Donmar Warehouse, budget constraints even dictated the limited number of costume changes for female leads Janet McTeer (Mary Queen of Scots) and Harriet Walter (Elizabeth). In total, Elizabeth wears just three gowns, and Mary just two. What few dresses they do wear aren't piled with jewels either. For Mary, who has been ruthlessly liberated from all earthly treasures and imprisoned for nearly 20 years when the play opens, bijoux simply aren't an option. But even the all-powerful Elizabeth isn't all rocked-out. Rather, for much of the first act, Ward lets a gown of Chinese brocade create the grandeur. "It's like a gold medallion on a black duchesse satin," he explains. "You get that notion of clusters of jewels, but in a rather simple way."
Ward's Elizabeth costume sketch; Walter as Elizabeth.
As for the gents, Ward says he and director Phyllida Lloyd kicked around a few ideas before returning to those dapper suits (a mix of off-the-rack, custom, Versace and Sean John). "We wanted it to feel like a modern political play," he says. "And having the men—or bureaucrats, I should say—dressed in suits, you really get the sense that they're diplomats manipulating these two iconic women. But I've done it in a really lean way."
In fact, the entire vibe is unexpectedly lean, from the wardrobe right down to the bare bones set. And after years of tricking-out such big Broadway productions as Gypsy and Oklahoma, Ward says he's thrilled to be attached to this stark incarnation of German playwright Friedrich Schiller's 1800 drama.
Which isn't to say that he hasn't been completely crazed, minimalist production notwithstanding. After all, he's in charge of the entire visual presentation, not just the garb. "In England, we tend to do both," he says. "In a way, you're creating a three-dimensional painting." Besides, he admits, his seamstress skills are a bit sub-par. "I couldn't cut to save my life," he says. "If it were left to me, everything would be falling apart."
Photos: Joan Marcus; Sketches: Anthony Ward.