As anyone who has attempted Hilary Mantel’s supernovel on the theme will know, revolutionary France seems to have been a fairly confusing place. All those factions and ideologies and decapitations make our current coalition government look dull. And they can be hard to follow. Fortunately, Howard Brenton’s new version of Büchner’s classic, Danton’s Death, cuts to the chase and is light on history and politics.
It is Danton the philosopher that we meet at the National Theatre. His meditations on mortality and fame just happen to have political turmoil as a background. Unfortunately, thinking and politics don’t mix well for him.
Toby Stephens plays Danton. He shouts against corruption superbly but excels when showing the mania of his complex character. Charges of libertinism seem well founded but he is so full of life and charisma that he is appealing. Stephens is magnetic whether on the soapbox, in the bedroom or in prison with his friends.
It is clear we should be following him. Anyway, the opposition are a tiresome lot. Elliot Levey’s Robespierre is a sibilant schoolboy who holds your interest but is hardly terrifying. His followers do far too much arm waving to rise above pantomime.
More disappointing than our hero’s enemies is his wife. Danton’s philandering doesn’t seem to have disturbed Madame at all. I am not sure what would fluster her, as Kirsty Bushell’s performance is so understated as to be soporific. She might be annoyed at the mess he’s going to make of his collar, but that’s about it.
Thankfully the spotlight is on Danton most of the time. And what a spotlight it is – Paule Constable’s lighting for the production is stunning, working perfectly with Christopher Oram’s cliché-free set and aiding director Michael Grandage’s clear, fast-paced production.
Danton’s death comes quickly and the props department’s stunning guillotine is truly convincing. I panicked for a moment, thinking Toby Stephens had been sacrificed for the sake of his art. That would have been a tragedy indeed – this production can’t afford to lose him.
Until 14 October 2010
Photo by Johan Persson
Written 2 August 2010 for The London Magazine