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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
DANTON'S DEATH
at the National (Olivier)

BLOODY, BLOODY HEROES
By JOHN NATHAN

  Elliot Levey and Toby Stephens/ Ph: Johan Persson

Director Michael Grandage is known for his reigns of terror. His thrilling production of Schiller’s Spanish history play Don Carlos was followed by an equally triumphant (well, almost) revival of Mary Stuart, the German author’s take on the dark forces that both threatened and preserved the first Queen Elizabeth's monarchy.
 
So you can see why the predictably brilliant Grandage – whose London-to-Broadway Donmar successes include Jude Law's Hamlet and the Mark Rothko play Red – chose Buchner’s French revolution play for his National debut. Here it gets a new translation by Howard Brenton, which at two uninterrupted hours is much shorter than the version he produced for Peter Gill’s National Theatre production of 1982.
 
It is 1794, five years after the storming of the Bastille. Most of the ancien regime has been guillotined, and the nouveau regime’s figurehead, the “incorruptible” Robespierre (Elliott Levey), is looking to lop the heads of anyone who might be a source of counter-revolution.
 
A virtuous hater of vice, Robespierre's former comrade Danton (Toby Stephens) will do very nicely. These days he is living up his hard-won liberté with his fellow libertines in Parisian brothels. It is an unequal contest – sanctimonious zeal verses libertarian apathy.
 
The conflict here is not so much about differing politics as differing personalities. Both these heroes of the revolution are haunted by the bloodletting they helped bring about. But whereas Danton yearns for the killing to stop, Robespierre is the “messiah of blood, who is not sacrificed [though he eventually was] but sacrifices.” He tightens his grip on both his conscience and the revolution by drawing on political conviction, which makes him much scarier than a politician motivated by personal ambition.
 
Despite the pace injected into the play by Grandage, this production delivers only a fraction of the heat and tension generated by the director in his Schillers. The plot has been so paired down by Brenton it lacks the complexity of a good thriller. Beyond the plan hatched by Robespierre’s bloodthirsty cohorts to rig the jury and corrupt the court that is trying Danton on trumped-up treason charges, there is little conspiracy to get our teeth into.
 
And even though history plays are inevitably shackled to some basic historical facts – such as the one enshrined by the play’s title – it doesn’t have to follow, as happens here, that a pall of inevitability hangs over events.
 
Here, they unravel to a gruesome climax in which Danton and his Dantonists are executed, a scene handled with a skill and stagecraft that leaves you marveling one moment at how convincing it all is, but wondering the next why there is no blood.
 
Schiller is not the only playwright the evening brings to mind. There is something of Arthur Miller’s John Proctor when Stephens’ Danton falls like an ocean on the hypocrisy of the McCarthy-like Committee of Public Safety. Designer Christopher Oram’s two-tier wooden courtyard makes an excellent crucible. And there are moments of Shakespearian introspection when Robespierre

 


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