31/8/10, National (Olivier)
1 hr 55 mins (no interval). Buchner's 1834 classic in a new version by Howard Brenton. Directed by Michael Grandage of the Donmar with Toby Stephens as Danton and Elliot Levey (very good) as Robespierre.
You can see why Grandage wanted to do it. It's about politics, which clearly fascinates him (Camus' Caligula, von Kleist's Prince of Homburg), and about Romantic/tragic views of the individual, history, fate. It pits the extremist Robespierre, who equates virtue with terror, against the sensualist Danton, now sickened by revolutionary bloodshed (though whether that's on ideological grounds or because he's overhwelmed by Romantic ennui isn't entirely clear).
The ideas are interesting. Danton describes himself as an epicurean and wrestles with questions of how to find meaning in a world from which the revolutionaries have banished God; Robespierre and St Just are Maoists ahead of their time, committed to permanent revolution.
But it's just one damn speech after another, static and dramatically inert (despite the dramatic premise). Robespierre and Danton only have one scene together: there should have been more. I wanted the clash of ideas, not just their presentation, one after another, in ordered sequence.
The climactic scene of Danton's trial is a series of speeches. D is in the well of the court, holding the jurors spellbound before being silenced and bundled off. But Robespierre and St Just hold the high ground, literally, at the centre of a balcony which runs round the entire back of the curved set. We liked the set by Christopher Oram very much: stained wood, with several doors at ground level and the balcony, entered from either end, with shutters that could be opened and closed to reveal floor to ceiling windows.
There were some interesting interventions by the women: a prostitute near the start with whom Danton consorts and (am I remembering this correctly?) who tells him her sad life story; Danton's wife, who tries to save him and poisons him when she can't; and Camille Desmoulins' Lucille, who goes fetchingly mad in a white high-waisted dress.