Danton’s Death, National Theatre, NT Olivier, August 2010

This play by Georg Büchner deals with a two-week period during the terror following the French revolution. The events he describes were but forty years in the past, and Büchner knew many of the speeches by Robespierre and Danton by heart. He was born in 1813, the same year as Wagner, so both these brilliant artists were at a very impressionable age when the 1830 revolution in France brought the ‘citizen king’ Louis-Philippe to power, and both became young revolutionaries. But while Wagner lived to create great operas, Büchner died at 23. This play was written in 1835 when he was just 21.

Robespierre and Danton, photo by Johan Persson

The main characters are Danton, Robespierre and Saint-Just. In an interesting essay in the programme, Ruth Scurr writes that “Büchner presents a brilliant portrait of Robespierre as a cold-blooded hypocritical fanatical prig”. Does he? If so this production didn’t quite show it. Robespierre is a background figure in the second half of the play, and seems to show serious reservations about condemning Danton, while Saint-Just is the prime mover in getting him convicted and guillotined. In this sense I thought Alec Newman gave a strong performance of Saint-Just, while Elliot Levey gave Robespierre a wrather camp feel, as did Chu Omambala with Collot d’Herbois, but that was presumably the intention of director Michael Grandage. It did however create something of a Monty Python feel to the whole thing, except that it wasn’t funny. It was dull and unrelenting, and while Toby Stephens’ extremely emotive portrayal of Danton may have been convincing, it didn’t elicit my sympathy.

Saint-Just in public mode, photo by Johan Persson

Paule Constable’s lighting, and the music and sound by Adam Cork, were wonderful, as were Christopher Oram’s designs showing enormously tall doors and windows that made the revolutionaries look small. Robespierre’s remark that ‘Virtue must rule through terror’ is often repeated, and the play has plenty of youthful energy from its young cast, but feels a bit like a history lesson. It only had its first performance 65 years after its author’s death, and Büchner went on to write deeper things, particularly Woyzeck, which was later used by Alban Berg in his opera of that name. Of course it’s always worthwhile to recall the history of the French terror in the early 1790s, but if one wants to recreate a sense of idealism, and revolutionary energy run amok, Giordano’s opera Andrea Chenier is the thing to see — Covent Garden and the ENO please note.

The four acts of this play are performed without a break — lasting about an hour and three quarters — and near the beginning we hear Robespierre saying (in Howard Brenton’s new version), “Only by your own self-destruction can you fall” (German: Du kannst nur durch deine eigne Kraft fallen). Robespierre fell just a few months later, but at the end of this play it is Danton and his friends who go to the guillotine, and that final scene is a brilliant coup de theatre. Whether it’s worth waiting for, I’m not so sure.

Performances continue until October 14 — for more details click here.

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