Isabelle Huppert stars in Robert Wilson's take
on Mary Queen of Scots

            “After dinner I was told that I am to be executed at eight o’clock in the morning…”


Isabelle Huppert as Mary. (Photo: Lucie Jansch)

Have you ever wondered what a Japanese Bunraku Puppet Show accompanied by a turbo-charged Requiem Mass would look like? Then hurry down to the Barbican to catch Mary Said What She Said while you can.

Mary is Mary Stuart, aka Mary Queen of Scots. The story of her life and grisly fate has fascinated, if not obsessed, many over the years with its potent mix of scandal, sex, religion, and violence. The allure of her story may be due to the perception of Mary as a female martyr in a deadly game of politics played for very high stakes. Though perhaps not entirely guiltless herself, the unreliability of surviving records allows myths to flourish and Mary, if not exactly an innocent victim, was clearly the loser.

Robert Wilson’s version of the story is as minimal as you can get. A bare stage. Less minimal is the tempestuous neo-baroque music by Ludovico Einaudi. A solo performer. But nothing minimal about that since the performer happens to be the formidable Isabelle Huppert whom we first see as the unmoving silhouette of an inverted goblet. We are made to wait a long time till she moves. And speaks. Which she does in French. (There are surtitles in English). So begins an hour-long monologue. Sometimes the actor speaks directly. Sometimes through a recording. And sometimes both simultaneously. But she never leaves the stage during the entire performance and we never stop watching her. Unless the surtitles demand…

The concept of the production seems to be that Mary, on the eve of her execution ordered by her cousin Elizabeth, relives moments from her life and is tormented. As the night wears on she is increasingly agitated, enraged, self-pitying, and even incoherent.

Isabelle Huppert as Mary. (Photo: Lucie Jansch)

The problem here is that without some knowledge of her story, the viewer is progressively bewildered by the random selection of what are, presumably, Mary’s own words. The text by Darrell Pinckney, is fragmented by a kind of washing machine effect whereby scraps of phrase and sentences whirl round inside the drum and randomly stick to the glass door of our attention.

Some are sententious: “If you ever bed a king don’t talk about it.” “Men make for the cruellest of mirrors.” “I am a vain shadow.” Others need context. “Elizabeth Boleyn a Virgin Queen? Do me a favour!” is fairly clear. (Some cousins just do not get on.) While the point of “That John Knox kept staring at my chest…” is easily lost. “Catherine de’ Medici was so terrified of losing her jewels she always wore as many as possible.” Others are plainer. Banal, even. As interesting as greetings on a holiday post card.  And banality is not exactly burnished by repetition. Even the heart-breaking dignity of Mary’s final letter: After dinner I was told that I am to be executed at eight o’clock in the morning… loses its power in this somewhat chaotic company.

By avoiding anything like a narrative the production leaves us with the spectacle of a woman falling apart in front of us. She can slump, or suddenly spring into life to charge diagonally to her stage right and makes stand-up gestures to the audience. What this means, is hard to say. Perhaps she is exhorting an invisible army to come to her aid. Like so many things about Mary, why even the devotional music turns into jangling bar-room piano, we will never know. Though presumably Robert Wilson does.

But it Ms Huppert’s sheer physical endurance and stunning vocal command that will linger in the memory.

Isabelle Huppert as Mary. (Photo: Lucie Jansch)

Production Notes

Mary Said What She Said
Written for the UK by Darryl Pinckney

Directed and Designed by Robert Wilson



Isabelle Huppert


Concept, Set, Light Design 

and Direction: Robert Wilson

Composer: Ludovico Einaudi

Set Design Collaboration:

Annick Lavallée-Benny

Lighting Design Collaboration:

Xavier Baron

Translation: Fabrice Scott

A production from the Théâtre de la Ville


Running Time: One hour 30 minutes

without an interval

Booking to 10th to 12th May 2024


Barbican Theatre

Barbican Centre

Silk Street

London EC2Y 8DS

Box Office:

020 7638 4141

Barbican Website:

Tube: Barbican or Moorgate

Reviewed by Brian Clover

at the Barbican Theatre

on 10th May 2024