Friday , April 12 2024
This cut-down version of the classic play presents the French Revolution as a romantic personal tragedy.

Theatre Review (London): Danton’s Death at the National Theatre

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.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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