The Theatreguide.London Review
The Prince of Homburg
Donmar Warehouse Theatre Summer 2010
A military officer disobeys a direct order and wins the battle. Should they give him a medal or put him in front of a firing squad?
There's more to Heinrich von Kleist's 1811 drama than that - some sleepwalking, a romance, a mutiny in the ranks, a Pirandello-like 'What is reality?' theme - but the central moral and human question is the backbone of the play, particularly in this somewhat stripped-down (under two hours, including long interval) new version by Dennis Kelly.
At its best the play poses real difficulties for an audience. The various plot strands don't always hang together, and the dream-or-reality question appears at the beginning and end and is all but forgotten in between.
And while the debate over the Prince's fate makes us happy to shift our sympathies back and forth as the case for each side is made, the characters themselves keep changing, making it hard to hang on to them.
A shy girl suddenly becomes brave and eloquent. A hard-nosed general seems to soften but just shifts to a darker sort of coldness. The Prince himself begins as a moony dreamer, then is absolutely confident he'll be treated as a hero, then turns to abject and cowardly grovelling for his life, then accepts his fate with dignity, then . . . .
It gets so that whenever any characters come onstage you can't be sure they'll be the same persons they were the last time you saw them.
Even so, the play can work, from scene to scene if not as a whole, as long as we're given the opportunity to care about these characters and to recognise that the issues matter to them.
But Kelly's condensed version and Jonathan Munby's bare-bones production don't give us that chance. For one thing, Kelly changes the play's ending completely, eliminating the Pirandello element, and darkening the tone of all that came before.
His translation also grates on the ear - waiting to hear his death sentence, the Prince asks 'How'm I doing?'
Charlie Cox can't find the core of continuity that would make the Prince's very different behaviours in each scene seem part of the same character, and while Sonya Cassidy is strong in her big scene arguing for his life, she seems to come out of nowhere and retreat back into it.
As is almost always the case, Ian McDiarmid quietly steals the show as the ruler/general deciding the Prince's fate. He uses the man's Prussian discipline as the key to the character and makes everything the man does make sense in that light.
He also shows us the man thinking - there is one silent sequence following the girl's plea in which his face takes us through the whole process of considering, rejecting, and coming up with a new twist - and thus ironically brings us deeper into the antagonist of the play than the hero.
There are strong moments in this production, and perhaps you can piece together what the play wanted to do as a whole, but you're not given a lot of help.
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