“Your face isn’t the most cheerful today”
The Prince of Homburg by Heinrich von Kleist is this year’s summer play at the Donmar Warehouse marking the return of Ian McDiarmid after Be Near Me last year. Presented in a new version here by Dennis Kelly (who I still haven’t quite forgiven yet for The Gods Weep), it was written in 1811 just before the German Romantic playwright committed suicide, and apparently was one of Hitler’s favourite plays. In order to squeeze this in before my holiday, I ended up seeing the second preview which should be acknowledged when reading my comments.
The play follows the titular Prince of Homburg, a shining light in the Prussian Army but possessed of a dreamy waywardness which flies in the face of the strict obedience of the law that typifies Prussian military behaviour and when he defies an order from his father-figure the Elector, matters of courage and honour push them both to a horrifying point of no return.
It just didn’t work for me. I wasn’t a fan of the underlying messages of the play, about authority and adhering to the rules at all costs, about facing death with honour and what courage really is. It didn’t help that I didn’t care for the Prince as a character, or Charlie Cox’s rather too earnest interpretation, but the language used throughout was overly florid and felt unnatural and prevented me from caring much about any of the characters.
I’ve never felt quite so much like I’ve been watching an actor try out different ways of playing his character in front of me before. Yes, I know it was a preview but these were still £20 tickets and it was just quite a surprise to see McDiarmid seemingly flirting with different characterisations, or perhaps he was just acting and I didn’t get it: the portrayal ended up feeling quite schizophrenic, an authoritative dictator one moment, a comic buffoon the next.
In the rest of the ensemble, Siobhan Redmond does well in too small a part, I can never quite get used to her talking without a Scottish accent but she pulls it off fine here; Harry Hadden-Patton delivered a fine performance and Julian Wadham and William Hoyland were also good, but few of the supporting roles are particularly well defined.
Visually, it fits into the Donmar aesthetic perfectly but it does just leave the feeling of having seen it all before. It is actually the younger sibling of the Danton’s Death set, all starkly unadorned material (in this case concrete), lighting from on high and a sneaky little gallery moment: all impressive but ultimately uninspiring. The use of music is also predictably ‘epic’, sweeping strings and an ethereal female vocalist, effective but heard so many times before.
So all in all a bit of a damp squibfor me: I suspect it will be much smoother by opening night and those expecting a more cerebral, psychological evening will not be disappointed. It just didn’t click for me or deliver enough the freshness that I would have expected from a new Donmar production.