Bergman Packs a Punch In Royal Smackdown

Ingmar Bergman’s fabulous production of that great royal soap from 1800, Friedrich von Schiller’s Maria Stuart , is just about the most erotically charged theater we could wish to see. Some claim Mr. Bergman has overdone the sex. But you cannot overdo sex, not on a good day.

The renowned director-a master of female psychology, of course-has tantalizingly raised the ante by making Schiller’s popular tale of the murderous rift between Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and Roman Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, an erotic rivalry of extraordinary power. The sexual undertow has been lurking unnoticed in Schiller’s luxuriantly hot-sometimes overheated-verse all along. But to bring it to life, you need Mr. Bergman’s sure hand in elemental staging and theatricality, and a couple of great actresses to play two of the greatest roles written for women in theater history.

What a treat! Pernilla August’s Maria and Lena Endre’s Elizabeth are here made mythic shadows of each other, eternal stalkers for dominance and love in an unbeautiful world. Maria Stuart is about the tyranny of the state versus religious and moral conscience, treacherous political necessity and free will. Liberty is personified by the two fabled women. “One of us must fall,” says Elizabeth, “so that the other can live.”

Men seem almost laughably extraneous. Mere men -preening courtiers, fascist bureaucrats, amorous suitors, secret Papists-are more like supporting roles in this epic battle of wills between the Virgin Queen and Maria. The willful Catholic threat to the English throne, Maria has been imprisoned for 19 years and will finally be beheaded. A good rattling yarn, then! And Mr. Bergman surely knows it from the stunning outset of his production, when the entire ensemble enters the monumental set of steely prison gray, in their shimmering scarlet and green silks and costumed splendor, to walk proudly to the footlights and greet us. They are not royal in that touching moment, or pretenders to the throne, or traitors or spies, but actors. And this wonderful troupe is saying to us with their timeless bow: “We’re glad to be here! Have we got a story for you !”

We couldn’t have been gladder to see them. Mr. Bergman and his ensemble, from the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden, were visiting the Brooklyn Academy of Music for only five days. We’ve so much to learn from them. The inspiring production urgently reminds New York theater, for one thing, to awaken from its long doze of middlebrow contentment and risk far, far more. There’s a world-a repertoire-out there! Yet each day, it seems, we hear of another Stephen Sondheim revival, another Edward Albee revival, and another -not another!-production of good old Twelfth Night . Throw in a British import or two, an Alan Ayckbourn comedy, Oklahoma! and an utterly nice and utterly safe Lincoln Center revival of Mornings at Seven , and you get the tired picture. My point is that Mr. Bergman, at 83 still walks the high wire without a safety net.

Maria Stuart gives us what we most need right now-the exhilarating size and sweep of an epic drama that counts. We’re growing “tired of little tight-fisted poems,” as the magnificent Gwendolyn Brooks put it about the bland smallness of life, “poems that cough lightly-catch a sneeze.” For all Mr. Bergman’s lyrical clarity and astonishing precision, he knows the wake-up call of a thunderclap. (Act I literally ends with a bang that shakes the rafters of the theater.) He knows that Schiller can test our patience, so he’s cut the four-hour play by two hours! He’s no theater purist, yet he goes for the pure center of things-a heartbeat, an elemental emotion and fury. Fury defines the central power: struggle between the ladies who rule.

Schiller has improvised history by giving Elizabeth and Maria the same lover, a smirking courtier named Leicester (in reality rumored to be the lover of Elizabeth). He’s the prize and the erotic battleground between the two. In a stunning move, the voracious Virgin Queen pins Leicester to the ground and straddles him in her silky robes for a royal quickie. Mr. Bergman’s witty point is that she’s asking him how beautiful he finds Maria at the time:

So often I have heard her features praised

That I would gladly know, should I believe it?

A portrait flatters, and descriptions lie,

I would trust nothing but my own eyes.

-Why do you look so strangely?

Appearance is all. “What you are means nothing,” says Elizabeth. “Only what you seem to be.” The Virgin Queen publicly renounces sexuality for power, her private lusts cloaked in sanctimonious virtue. The revelation of the beautiful Lena Endre’s interpretation is that the private Elizabeth is a cold little slut of the highest order. Often portrayed with regally repressed sexuality à la Judi Dench, Ms. Endre’s cunty queen is driven by sex and ambition (and mortal doubt). Men flinch in her presence, but the suitor has an opportunity.

Maria, the bewitcher of the two, plays the game of appearances just the same. Maria must publicly renounce power for love of God; yet privately she murdered her husband for love and plots uncontrollable vengeance for the crown. A legendary beauty, her long hair is a wig that turns out to be a disguise for the humiliating gray of middle age.

An actress playing with such glorious, liberated freedom as Pernilla August is a God-given gift. Ms. August’s beauty is in the fire that rages within her Maria (and will consume her). Her towering performance is both grave and astonishing in its violent passion, unhinged, primal, riveting in every way. Has a more natural actress seized the territory of the stage-burned it-with such animal fury? The climatic meeting between Maria and Elizabeth was invented by Schiller, who rewrote history in pursuit of the higher cause of dramatic truth. The lamb must embrace the tiger. Maria must humiliate herself, bartering humbly for her freedom by reigning in her notorious temper. She can’t help herself, of course, thereby sealing her tragic fate and execution. Hell hath no fury like a queen scorned. But Ms. August’s howl of joyful, suicidal triumph when Maria humiliates Elizabeth is orgasmic, laughably giddy and complete, rolling ecstatically in the dust of England.

At the drama’s close, Maria has been executed and Elizabeth is left isolated and abandoned. Maria was released by death; Elizabeth imprisoned by it. “Now you need fear nothing and need value nothing,” the Earl of Shrewsbury tells her. A brief final coda follows when Mr. Bergman brings Maria back to share the stage-the mythic universe-with the silent Elizabeth as she mimes her execution before darkness comes.

But the touching scene of repentance and grace proves more memorable, for myself anyway. Painterly farewell scenes can easily spill over into operatic sentimentality, and they’re usually meant to. Not with Mr. Bergman. Maria’s farewell to her grieving court before being led away is so restrained and tender that pity for her is our only response.

But there, holding the scene together, are two remarkable actors, Erland Josephson and Gunnel Lindblom, who’ve worked with Mr. Bergman for half a century. I know Mr. Josephson to be one of the finest actors who ever lived, and here he is, within the great continuing tradition of the world’s leading classical companies, playing the essential cameo role of Maria’s loyal Courtmaster. This most modest of actors plays him to perfection, setting the tone of ultimate absolution and forgiveness.

May they all come back soon. Bergman Packs a Punch In Royal Smackdown