THEATRE / Mary Stuart When two Queens go to war.

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The British theatre, we're often told, has shilly-shallied over Schiller. That's true enough, though our neglect of Germany's great national dramatist has been rather less shameful this past decade. Three years ago (a mere two centuries after it was written), the RSC, for example, gave the English professional premiere of Wallenstein, an extraordinary epic study of the conflict between heroic character and the workings of Realpolitik. The Robbers, his youthful Sturm und Drang play and one uncannily prescient not just of the French Revolution but of its sobering aftermath, now regularly crops up on our stages, while the proudest record for Schiller revivals belongs to the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre, which recently mounted Don Carlos.

Slowly, we are beginning to overcome our two most powerful prejudices about this author. These are (a) that his plays are like postdated blueprints for Shakespearian drama and (b) that they have all the appeal of a Verdi opera minus the music.

Making a somewhat belated plunge into Schiller, the National Theatre is now staging Mary Stuart, a play that focuses on the last days of its eponymous tragic heroine. It explores the contrast between Protestant Elizabeth, whose sexuality has been kept parched down to a certain grizzly flirtatiousness in the interests of state craft and Catholic Mary, who may have been betrayed by her impulsive sensuality but who, paradoxically less of a prisoner than her captor, has by the end decided to convert that physical energy into a sublime spiritual self-purification.

Howard Davies's production has a number of strong assets. Anna Massey, whose diction could kill at a hundred yards, and Isabelle Huppert, whose Gallic-vowelled delivery sometimes sounds like an attempt to sprint through glue, are both ideal in terms of physical presence. Under the white make- up and the orange wig, Massey's face is disturbingly simian and desiccated, her frame shrunken with bitterness. Fists shaking in pent-up frustration, the beautiful Huppert devours the stage with the animal vigour of a refined thoroughbred.

Puzzlingly, though, the production appears to be suffering from a very English embarrassment at the play's moral seriousness. The watershed meeting of the queens at Fotheringay and Mary's sacramental preparation for death are handled well enough. It's just that, in this staging, they are in danger of making less impact than the excessively camp and winning depiction of the undignified workings of Realpolitik. Jeremy Sams's translation sets the tone for this when it has Tim Pigott-Smith's slippery, airily self-regarding Leicester describe the attempt to steer Elizabeth into a French marriage as "the wish to frogmarch you - I use the word advisedly - to the altar".

There are some very funny sequences, such as the amazing scene where, having at last signed Mary's death warrant, Elizabeth, with a lofty, calculating evasiveness, leaves the responsibility for deciding whether to deliver it or not to an understandably terrified new courtier. The production falls on such moments with an all-too-evident relief, as though happiest with what can be played for laughs. This is a far from unrewarding evening, but you feel that it's not the last, or even the antepenultimate, word on Mary Stuart.

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