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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Danton's Death
Olivier Theatre  Summer-Autumn 2010

Georg Buchner's French Revolution drama, here in a new version by Howard Brenton, is the sort of 19th-century play in which everyone takes every opportunity to make grand rabble-rousing speeches.

If there are no rabble around, they make grand speeches at each other, and if they find themselves alone they soliloquise in grand speeches. I'm not sure there are more than a few isolated moments of natural conversation in the whole play.

Now, that may sound pretty dreary, and to be honest, with all those waves of oratory coming at you and not much to look at, you may well find your eyelids drooping. But even as you have trouble keeping awake, you can recognise that this is the sort of play, and its hero is the sort of role, that a grand actor in the nineteenth-century mode could have a field day with.

I can imagine Irving, or even Olivier, tearing up the place with the combination of passion, eloquence and just plain sexiness that Buchner gives to Danton.

But I have to report that, for all his unquestioned talent - he is attractive, he speaks well, and he does suggest a real human being behind all the verbiage - Toby Stephens is not (or not yet) that kind of matinee idol, and he just can't carry the sagging weight of the whole play on his shoulders.

We're in the middle of the Reign of Terror, when the revolutionaries have killed off the nobility and any inconvenient extremists among them, and have now begun feeding on themselves.

In particular, the hard-line and puritan Robespierre is determined to purge the more moderate we've-won-so-let's-relax Danton, offended as much by Danton's enjoyment of life as by his politics.

Danton moves from confidence that he's untouchable, through outrage, to stoic acceptance (and perhaps a premonition that Robespierre would follow him to the guillotine in a few months). And he speechifies at every opportunity along the way, as does Robespierre and just about anyone else who can grab a metaphorical soapbox for a few moments.

In what I suspect is a design error, everybody is costumed pretty much the same, so you may have difficulty telling them apart, or even picking Stephens' Danton out of a group.

Elliot Levey gives Robespierre an appropriate coldness, except for one soliloquy in which he admits to fear of his heavily-repressed emotions, but Buchner (or Brenton) relegates him to the role of behind-the-scenes manipulator, giving many of the rabble-rousing speeches that ought by rights to be his to his Number Two man, Saint-Just, played with spirit by Alec Newman.

Danton's own Number Two, Desmoulins, is conceived as something of a caught-up-in-the-mess victim, and Barnaby Kay generates some sympathy in the role. The only other performer and character to register is Kirsty Bushell, carrying considerable nobility and moral power as Danton's wife.

Director Michael Grandage does his best to make all the oratory alive and interesting, and tries to disguise the static quality of most scenes by punctuating them with a handful of people (who?) rushing across an upper stage (to where?), to give the impression that something may actually be happening somewhere while everybody is standing around talking at each other here.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Danton's Death - National Theatre 2010