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Binoy Kampmark: Mary Stuart in Copenhagen

Schiller at the Sausage Van: Mary Stuart in Copenhagen

by Binoy Kampmark

The laughs grate, the performances seem grotesque. But the warning signs were there: Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart at the Betty Nansen Theatre in Copenhagen, the adaptation of the demise and end of Mary Stuart at the hands of her nemesis, Queen Elizabeth of England, was doomed to scarring mutilation. Under the direction of Katrine Weidemann, Ditte Gråbøl in the role of Elizabeth and Sidse Babett Knudsen as that of Mary Stuart, succeeded in lowering a tragedy to that of a somewhat crude comedy. We should all laugh, it should seem, lest we lose our sense of perspective on grand historical actors.

Perspective was the last thing to bother the production team. Why bother with luxurious and grave language, the idea of pathos, when one can reduce it to the level of a sand pit dispute with the empathy of quarrelling children? Essentially, the two challengers were throwing sand at each other, with Elizabeth holding the upper hand, if only just. Elizabeth seemed almost moronic in her childishness, while Mary Stuart was, as ever, the harlot on heat, seducing and charming herself across the stage in what looked strikingly like a nightdress. Stereotypes triumphed, though the common assumption of the Queen of England being composed and sacrificial in her role was underscored by a juvenile uncertainty. The cardboard advisors did nothing to change it.

In the original Schiller version, word play is essential. Both characters compete on a plane of power, one for the Scottish throne, the other for England; and the fate of Mary Stuart is given a defence that does make Elizabeth less certain of her actions. The advisors are also essential, crafting defences for and against Stuart’s position. But in this case, best let the girls sort it out in the sand pit, without so much as a referee to adjudicate. Even better, make Mary Stuart crawl on the stage, a spectacle most edifying for one who seeks to reclaim her Scottish throne. Even the premier Danish paper, the Politiken, was left ‘surprised’ by the product, and somewhat disbelieving of the various relationships, including that of the secret love between Lord Leicester and Elizabeth.

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Aspects of it were impressive, but for reasons entirely remote from the play. The dramatic suicide of Mortimer, dagger protruding from chest; the spontaneous lesbian scene between the both queens (Symbolic of what? Dangerous tongues, as was suggested on stage?), the rolling centre of the theatre which moved much like a seamless airport escalator, ferrying bodies and chattering characters back and forth, gave the audience much pause for amusement. One member of the audience, on leaving contented, voiced her opinion: ‘I never knew the story beforehand, but my, was it funny.’ And so we have Schiller as the comedian, or rather, a work that was found tragedy and left as a weak comedy.

Danish, in translation, is sometimes difficult to project on stage, though it need not always be the case. The language of gravitas becomes ever the language of pragmatism, instrumental, workmanlike. It can prove effective, but as to whether it moves in the same way is a matter of debate. Translations of Shakespeare appear clunky; Schiller can look right royal comical. Ostentatious word play in this case was trimmed in favour of language that could, as the Politiken column went, take place at a Danish sausage van (or pølservogn). Perhaps his demise at the hands of these so called master comedians was inevitable. He, with his historical characters, would not have been amused. Nor were many viewers.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. Email:

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