The production of Danton’s Death at the National Theatre is pretty well everything you’d expect — well-acted, spectacularly staged, snappily directed.
Toby Stephens is a charismatic Danton, and the set of Christopher Oram and the lighting of Paule Constable are hugely powerful — sometimes even more than the action. And if the staging seems to too often involve the very large cast swirling around the stage as brothel/tavern mob, Assembly, or court, the two-level set is frequently effectively utilised.
This is not, however, despite the billing, exactly, or even largely, Georg Büchner’s acclaimed 1835 play — so politically explosive it couldn’t be staged until 1902.
This is Howard Brenton’s heavily cut-down version of the play, with the focus on Danton and Robespierre (Elliot Levey), mostly their personal interactions and interactions with their respective factions, but with a strong dose too of Danton’s personal (libertine) life.
What disappears, unfortunately, is the politics. We end up with a French Revolution that’s mostly about the personal power struggle between two men, and a couple of wives who’ll be so attached to their husbands that they’ll respectively go mad and commit suicide at their deaths.
This is a revolution as a romantic personal tragedy, which really has to be described as a misused revolution.
And it’s a tragedy of two men who are neither particularly attractive characters, a factor of the script not the acting — Robespierre emerges as the purest of blacks (such that today’s Sunday matinee audience booed the actor at the curtain call) and Danton — certainly historically inappropriately — as pure white.
I’m also less than convinced by an ending that simply goes: four main characters guillotined, the end. The staging is highly, gorily literal, but the audience was clearly waiting for some final exposition, hence a less (literally) messy ending, but it fails to arrive.
The production continue until October 14: online booking.