by Georg Buchner.
Olivier Theatre Upper Ground South Bank SE1 9PX In rep to 14 October 2010.
7.30; mats 2.30pm (see website for details);
Runs: 1hr 45min No interval.
TICKETS 020 7452 3000.
Review: Carole Woddis 24 July.
Hurtling production – but the whole is less than the sum of the parts.
Revolutionary fervour is never an easy emotion to represent on stage. Coincidentally whilst the National Theatre is reviving Danton’s Death, Georg Büchner’s youthful démarche on the French Revolution, over in East London Caryl Churchill’s equally early and engrossing account of the English Civil War, Light Shining in Buckinhamshire is receiving a bracing revival from young director Polly Findlay.
The comparison is instructive. Both plays include verbatim reports of the players involved: in Churchill’s play, the Putney debates, in Danton’s Death, the words of French revolutionary leaders, Robespierre, Danton, and others. In both, politics are swathed in didactism, ideas driving forward social change.
Worlds indeed Turned Upside Down.
For 17th century England, political fervour became entwined with religion. In 18th century France, the Enlightenment and philosophy pushed forward revolutionary idealism.
Büchner, though, was German. Howard Brenton’s adaptation (a revised version of his 1982 translation for the National) is typically flexible and fluid but there’s no mistaking the Teutonic sturm und drang reflected in the nightmares of Robespierre and Danton.
It’s a hurtling 105 minutes, upped in Michael Grandage’s debut National production by Chrisotpher Oram’s grandiose set of towering French Assembly shuttered windows and the swirling chords of Adam Cork’s score. Cork’s bombastic music though has the contrary effect, one of over-kill. And though Grandage’s production has unquestionably its thrilling moments – the Marseillaise, the guillotine – it’s too often overwhelmed by overheated noise and bluster.
The main losers are the portrait of friendship sundered and the debates themselves.
Elliot Levey is sadly underwhelming as Robespierre, failing to capture his character’s vicious political psychosis. Toby Stephens makes a plausible Danton if resorting to a level of shouting that makes one fear for his larynx. Passionate views shouldn’t always have to be pitched at such aural discomfort. Indeed Stephens’ best moments are his quieter, twilight speculations on approaching death and the pessimism of human behaviour confided to his wife, Julie (the women are generally poorly represented here apart from Eleanor Matsuura’s prostitute).
A play that should make one feel `oh the pity of it’ passes in a cloud of sound and fury signifying less than it should.
Georges Danton: Toby Stephens.
Legendre: Ashley Zhangazha.
Camille Desmoulins: Barnaby Kay.
Lacroix: Gwilym Lee.
Hèrault-Sechelles: Max Bennett.
Julie: Kirsty Bushell.
Lucile: Rebecca O’Mara.
Marion: Eleanor Matsuura.
Robespiere: Elliot Levey.
Saint-Just: Alec Newman.
Barère: Philip Joseph.
Collot d’Herbois: Chu Omambala.
Duplay: Judith Coke.
Eléonore: Rebecca Scroggs.
Elisabeth: Elizabeth Nestor.
Herman: Michael Jenn.
General Dillon: David Beames.
A Lyonnais: Ilan Goodman.
Citizens: Stefano Braschi, Jason Cheater, Emmanuella Cole, Taylor James, David Smith, Jonathan Warde.
Director: Michael Grandage.
Designer: Christopher Oram.
Lighting: Paule Constable.
Sound/Music: Adam Cork.
Company Voice: Jeannette Nelson.