“I’m sick of this rigmarole”
Danton’s Death, the 1835 play about the French Revolution by Georg Büchner, marks an impressive brace of debuts: Toby Stephens making his first bow on the stage here in the title role and Michael Grandage, Artistic Director of the Donmar, making his directorial debut here on the South Bank. Setting up in the Olivier theatre for the summer, it is part of the Travelex season so there’s been plenty of £10 seats available. This was the first preview that I saw, I acknowledge this freely but stand by everything I say here.
The story is set in 1794, a period between the first and the second terrors during the French Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety has been set up in the name of the revolutionary new order and is summarily executing people whether the accusations against them are true or not. Its creator, Georges Danton, has come to regret his part in the genesis of something responsible for the killings of so many people and has been shocked at the way in which the revolution has been increasingly radicalised. His former friend and colleague Robespierre is at the head of this new faction leading the way and when Danton makes a stand for what he sees as too much, the stage is set for an almighty power struggle between the two political rivals.
At the heart of the story is Danton, a character with whom I think we were meant to sympathise but I found it hard to like him. He has a conscience about his part in the revolution so far, but I never got a sense of what he had actually done or what he really stood for. This was partly due to Toby Stephens’ performance, full of swaggering arrogance but mostly due to the character, given to grand sweeping musings on the nature of existence, convinced that his popularity will save him from the guillotine and generally quite unlikeable (to me at least). I don’t think I actually like Stephens that much as an actor so I wonder how much of this is actually my prejudices, please feel free to tell me.
I found the first third of the play to be rather unengaging as there were a lot of unconnected scenes, unexplained characters, painful soliloquys and little sense of drama. The scene changes were punctuated with a lot of fannying about on the gallery which quickly grew tiresome, robbed the play of a genuine sense of atmosphere and more than a couple of people around me were nodding off. Things finally sparked into action with the tribunal coming into session and the verbosity gave way a little to moments of acuity, as it became clear that Robespierre can only see violence as the way to change the world (“He who makes only half a revolution digs his own grave”) and Danton wants and needs compromise (“The revolution devours it own children”). As the shadow of death looms though, the angsty chat resumes and consequently the level of drama (and my interest) dropped.
Stephens aside, I have to say I was somewhat underwhelmed by almost all the ensemble players. Only Barnaby Kay’s passionate Desmoulins and Elliot Levey’s sibilant Robespierre managed to impress me. Elsewhere there were some sadly lifeless performances, one person just shouting their lines, a complete mishmash of conflicting styles and a morass of barely there supporting characters. Some of this could be excused as first preview issues, things like the over-acting extras talking far too loud in the background can be amended, but there’s also a more serious issue in the play itself, there are just far too many poorly defined characters that make brief appearances and then rarely reappear, so there’s scarce opportunity for them to make the characters work.
Most notable here is the penultimate scene featuring the wife of one of Danton’s compatriots going mad outside the prison walls, a nice enough scene but we’ve met her barely once before and little attention was paid to her so quite why she gets the grand emotional beat at the end of the play I do not know. That this is at the expense of actually featuring the more interesting characters like Robespierre, who despite being at the centre of the action from the outset, disappears never to be seen again two thirds into the play.
The set looks attractive: all hexagonal with a nicely laid wooden floor and rising to great heights at the multi-entranced back, with a gallery running round and shuttered windows which are periodically opened. However, it is not the most flexible of spaces and little work is done to differentiate the locations, I had no idea we were in a prison for the first scene there. And it doesn’t utilise the space of the Olivier that well either: it forces the action into a fairly small circle in the centre of the stage and so if your seats are not central, then there’s likely to be a fair bit of back-watching going on. It just feels suited to a smaller venue.
I think my attitude is typified by the finale which is quite an impressive coup de theatre, but rather than feeling any emotion at what was happening, I was just wondering ‘how did they do that’, as indeed were most of the people around me given the rise in whispering. That and marvelling at the varying pronunciations of Robespierre (should it rhyme with ‘spear’ or ‘spare’, I am none the wiser and I began to wonder if it was a running joke that I was missing, so diverse were the attempts at saying his name).So Danton’s Death was ultimately a disappointment for me, some of the issues could get better by opening night but I’m afraid I don’t think the play itself is worth even the £10 seats.