Sunday, May 23, 2021

568. VIVAT! VIVAT! REGINA. From my (unpublished) ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE NEW YORK STAGE, 1970-1975

Eileen Atkins. (Photos: Friedman-Abeles.)

VIVAT! VIVAT! REGINA [Drama/Biographical/British/Period/Political/Women] A: Robert Bolt; D: Peter Dews; S/C: Carl Toms; L: Lloyd Burlingame; M: Richard Kayne; P: David Merrick and Arthur Cantor b/a/w H.M. Tennent, Ltd.; T: Broadhurst Theatre; 1/20/72-4/29/72 (116)

Claire Bloom, John Devlin.

Robert Bolt’s British history drama about Mary Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I was produced on Broadway with Eileen Atkins in her London role of Elizabeth but with Claire Bloom taking the role of Mary, played on the West End by Sarah Miles, Bolt’s wife. The drama was intended as a non-romantic “black play,” a work that sought to present the familiar story of the warring 16th-century monarchs in an unvarnished, realistic fashion.

Sticking to the facts, Bolt avoided having Mary and Elizabeth meet, a fabrication famously used in Schiller’s classic Mary Stuart. The years from 1559-1587 are traversed by the action, with the leading actors aging visibly during the course of the performance. The chief point of this long historical overview is to show the evolving characters of the queens, Mary growing from a sensual 16-year-old political novice to a woman of intelligence, feeling, and warmth, and Elizabeth moving from a charming, vivacious noblewoman to a steely leader of cold craft and political wisdom.

Claire Bloom, Eileen Atkins, Stephen Macht, Theodore Tenley.

Bolt uses various theatrical devices to telescope the 28 years covered. Among them are direct address speeches delivered to fill in narrative gaps.

Essentially a star vehicle, Vivat! Vivat! Regina met mostly with polite acceptance or indifferent rebuffs. The critics applauded Carl Toms’s lavish and well-designed sets and costumes, but could not agree on the theatrical value of Bolt’s treatment. This “new and persuasive” telling was flawed and “insubstantial,” but vital, noted Clive Barnes, who pointed to the playwright’s clever use of contemporary colloquialisms, sophisticated wit, honest characterizations, and “smart and glossy” writing. T.E. Kalem described it as “a vivid tapestry of passion, blood, majesty and death.”

Less responsive was Walter Kerr, who failed to see the justification for writing the play. Brendan Gill was “dismayed” by seeing the potential for a history drama of international power struggles dwindle into an excuse “for courtly conversation and amorous byplay.”

Atkins and Bloom were showered with compliments although most of the latter’s accolades were directed more at her beauty than her acting which, although professionally smooth, used an unconvincing French accent (supported by history). Atkins received a Tony nomination for Best Actress, Play, and Bloom won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance. The play itself was Tony-nominated, and other Tony nominations went to Douglas Rain, who played William Cecil, for Best Supporting Actor, Play, and Lee Richardson, who played Lord Bothwell, in the same category.

Other names in the large cast included Diana Kirkwood, Alexander Scourby, Ralph Clanton, Stephen Macht, Theodore Tenley, John Devlin, and Ralph Drischell.

Do you enjoy Theatre’s Leiter Side? As you may know, since New York’s theatres were forced into hibernation by Covid-19, this blog has provided daily posts on the hundreds of shows that opened in the city, Off and on Broadway, between 1970 and 1975. These have been drawn from an unpublished manuscript that would have been part of my multivolume Encyclopedia of the New York Stage series, which covers every show, of every type, from 1920 through 1950. Unfortunately, the publisher, Greenwood Press, decided it was too expensive to continue the project beyond 1950.

Before I began offering these 1970-1975 entries, however, Theatre’s Leiter Side posted over 1,600 of my actual reviews for shows from 2012 through 2020. The first two years of that experience were published in separate volumes for 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 (the latter split into two volumes). The 2012-2013 edition also includes a memoir in which I describe how, when I was 72, I used the opportunity of suddenly being granted free access to every New York show to begin writing reviews of everything I saw. Interested readers can find these collections on by clicking here. 

Up next: Voices.