Wednesday, 11 August 2010


10/08/10, Donmar

Heinreich von Kleist's piece about the conflict between duty and the individual, written at the height of early 19th century Romanticism... and controversially given a New Ending in this Donmar production.

The Prince of Homburg is the adopted son of the Elector of Brandenburg. It's the 1670s, and they are fighting the invading Swedes. At the Battle of Fehrbellin the Prince disobeys the Elector's direct orders not to attack with his cavalry until the Swedish army has been surrounded and cut off. The prince was distracted by love for his cousin at the pre-battle briefing. The battle is a victory, but not the total one the Elector had hoped for. He court martials the prince. The only possible sentence is death. It all shapes up as a fascinating clash between 18th century Enlightment ideas of order, rules and structure on the one hand, and the 19th century Romantic belief in the autonomy of the individual on the other.

So far so good. Ian McDiarmid suitably scary as the calculating martinet of an Elector; Siobhan Redmond extremely impressive as the Electress; Chris Cox an appealing prince; intelligent direction by Jonathan Munby who also did Life is a Dream (another play about a tyrannical monarch and imprisoned prince).

But then the play goes off the rails a little. There's a scene in which the prince leaves his prison on parole to beg for his stepmother's intervention and, having passed the grave opened for him on the way, finds his bravery deserting him and says he'll do anything to live. This scene proved so problematic for the 19th century that it was usually cut (the play wasn't produced until after von Kleist's death in any case) and you can see why. He dumps his girlfriend in order to live (she's promised to the Swedish king in a diplomatic marriage alliance). She tells him he's behaving badly. By the interval he's lost our sympathy and so has virtually everyone else in the play (the Elector because, having made his point, he refuses to do what everyone expects and pardon the boy, or at least commute the sentence).

An historical descendant of the Elector, of course, was the King of Prussia who forced his homosexual son, later Frederick the Great, as a boy to watch the execution of his lover, so rigidity bordering on mania clearly ran in the family.

Things pick up in the second half, with a lot of military coming and going, letters written and received, the girlfriend developing a quite unexpected capacity for decisive action, the Elector having to face down a mutiny from his officers and the prince finding himself once more when the Elector offers him a reprieve provided he can say the Elector acted wrongly (he can't, of course). There's a very fine scene indeed between the Elector and one of his veteran officers in which they debate what matters more in battle: victory or obedience to orders.

In von Kleist's original the prince is pardoned, having presumably learnt his lesson. The historical Prince of Homburg went on to live a long life. But in this version the Prince is executed as the Elector looks on from a balcony at the back of the stage and tries and fails to get his silent officers to join him in the triple "hail" we have come to know as the electorate's official military salute. The reference to the ultimate rise of Nazism, a bastardised child of Prussian militarism, is clear.

I'd forgotten (despite having read the reviews) until reading up on von Kleist and the play later that the ending had been changed. This one worked well dramatically and didn't bother me at the time: it gave the play a contempoary resonance it would otherwise have lacked. But how does this differ from 18th century rewritings and bowdlerisations of Shakespeare about which we're always so sniffy?

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