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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
LUISE MILLER
at the Donmar Warehouse

STATELY PASSION
By RHODA KOENIG

  Ben Daniels and Max Bennett/ Ph: Johan Persson

"Stately passion" may seem an oxymoron, but it's the mood of this fascinating production of Schiller's Luise Miller (1784). Mike Poulton's translation is vivid and supple, yet at times it cannot avoid sounding stilted, as this youthful play surges and buckles, full of ringing declarations, conflicts of class, love, family, state and religion. The last is taken seriously only by the "simple people," not the aristocracy, who use it to keep them in their place. But that place, when Schiller wrote, was shifting. Terrified by the vindictiveness of the German chancellor, Luise's musician father starts to flee with her, but, when the chancellor treats his daughter with contempt, defies him, as father to father and man to man.
 
Luise herself symbolises the collapse of hierarchy, for she and the chancellor's son love each other and want to marry. But more than differences of class and wealth are against them. The chancellor, to whom both his son and his subject are his property, orders Ferdinand to marry the much older mistress of the prince, and briskly arranges to get Luise out of the way. The personal rebellion of the young people becomes lethally political. Though the play has some surprising twists of character, the plot follows a too-straight line of doom that partakes more of Romantic excess than Enlightenment rationality, intensified by the darkness of the stark, somber setting.
 
That darkness, however, is set ablaze by the fierce duets of this chamber piece, even sans the Verdi music that was later written for them. Luise and Ferdinand, Ferdinand and his father, Ferdinand and the prince's mistress, Lady Milford, debate with heat as well as light, their fury mounting as they find themselves beating on a locked door. The door unexpectedly flies open for Luise, though, in the play's most touching scene, when she boldly accuses Lady Milford of wanting to corrupt her so as not to be reproached by her purity. The other woman, to the shock of both, admits she's right. In this, and Lady Milford's scene with Ferdinand, when she turns his derision to respect and pity, Schiller's dialogue for the women is remarkably sensitive and sympathetic.
 
The strong cast and their deft management are the work of Michael Grandage, who will be a hard act for Josie Rourke to follow when she takes over the Donmar in the fall. Ben Daniels is terrific as the brutal chancellor who meets every incursion on his power with an almost crazed retaliation that blinds him to the way it may rebound upon him. The lovely Felicity Jones, stalwart but tender, is more than a match for him – pale and slender, enclosed in a cylindrical corset, she's like a human candle, a flickering light of virtue in a wicked world. Alex Kingston slightly overdoes the ripe sensuality in her scene with Ferdinand but is vulnerable and moving in her confrontation with Luise.
 
Max Bennett's Ferdinand was too soft for my taste – and for someone who is his father's son. But there are sharp, beautifully detailed performances from Paul Higgins as Luise's father and from John Light and David Dawson as court villains-for-hire who are not without vulnerabilities of their own (the former is also in love with Luise, whom he defames, and the latter, fastidious and fey, knows he is sneered at behind his lace-trimmed back).
 
Grandage's choice of this rarely seen but historically important play rather than a flashier farewell piece is typical of the taste and distinction with which he has managed the Donmar. I wish him well, but also wish he would change the pronunciation of one word here: When Dawson tells the chancellor that he has come from the levee, I was startled for a second, then realised he was talking about a royal reception. Please, can't he say it the French way? As it is, he sounds, to American ears, as if he was waitin' for the Robert E. Lee.
 


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