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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Luise Miller
Donmar Theatre      Summer 2011

There's a real joy in seeing a production so well directed that every single actor is operating at the top of his or her form, and that is especially true when the play itself is filled with traps that could easily have derailed it in less expert hands. 

So I begin with praise and appreciation for director Michael Grandage, who adds this play to his long string of Donmar triumphs.

In Freidrich Schiller's 1784 tragedy a young nobleman falls in love with a poor musician's daughter, but his corrupt father wants to marry him off to the Prince's mistress to increase his own power and influence in court. The honourable and romantic young man stands up to his father, but can't defend himself against the older man's devious manipulations, which lead inevitably to tragedy. 

There's a lot of earnest talk about Love and Honour, a lot of lapsing into purple prose and poetic flourishes. There are sudden shifts in tone, self-conscious echoes of Shakespeare and other writers the 24-year-old Schiller had immersed himself in, goodies who are all-good and baddies who are dreadfully evil, and a few too many plot twists and abrupt reversals.

And yet the play works, carrying us along through all its flaws by the righteous passion of its indignation and the energy of its writing. 

And also by the fact that director Grandage had the wisdom and sensitivity to see that the only way to play this was with absolute commitment, taking on the young playwright's passion and bravely investing every moment, even those that teeter on the edge of the excessive or the ridiculous, with complete belief and reality. 

This may come perilously close to being tosh, by cynical modern standards, but it is sincere tosh, and playing it with sincerity wins us over and brings us on its emotional journey. 

Felicity Jones makes the heroine the essence of ingenue loveliness while still discovering her core of admirable strength. Max Bennett skilfully treads the tightrope between stalwart hero and self-dramatising adolescent, playing a character who is right in every instinct but unworldly enough to be manipulated, and sustaining our sympathy throughout.

John Light is deliciously evil as the oiliest of the villains and David Dawson amusing as a more frivolous accomplice, while Ben Daniels is fascinatingly complex as the father who has not completely forgotten all he once knew about honour but also knows his survival depends on repressing whatever bits of it are left.

Paul Higgins makes the girl's father a believable portrait in simple virtue, and Alex Kingston creates an intriguingly multifaceted figure out of the mistress. 

For all its strengths, there were a hundred places where this play could have gone wrong in less sensitive and skilful hands. That it sailed past every one of them, absorbing the audience into its reality, is a real tribute to director and cast.

It's also one of the best evenings of theatre we're likely to encounter this year.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Luise Miller - Donmar 2111

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