Theatre review: Danton’s Death

Posted on: 28 July 2010 by Mark O'haire

Laurence Green reviews the political tragedy Danton’s Death at the National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium.

A powerful warning against the dangers of radicalisation in which the protagonists play a losing game against mortality is provided by German dramatist George Buchner in his political tragedy Danton’s Death, revived in an excellent new version by Howard Brenton at the National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium.

It is 1794 and the French revolution is reaching its climax. After a series of bloody purges the pleasure-loving, volatile George Danton, who has become sickened by the bloodshed of the Reign of Terror, is tormented by his part in the killing. His political rival, the driven, ascetic Robespierre, who chillingly believes that butchery is the only way to preserves the spirit of the revolution, decides Danton’s fate. A titanic struggle begins. Once friends who wanted to change the world, now one stands for compromise, the other for ideological purity as the guillotine awaits.

A revolutionary himself, Georg Buchner was 21 when he wrote the play in 1835, while hiding from the police for his own subversive activities as a radical young idealist. With its hair-raising rush of scenes and vivid dramatisation of complex, visionary characters, the play exudes a strong sense of authenticity. Indeed it is claimed Buchner knew the speeches of the revolutionary leaders by heart and whole sentences of the text are verbatim. The play, however, is no mere didactic tract but works as a gripping piece of drama, going way beyond historical ‘realism’. It gives us direct access to what Danton, Robespierre and their followers actually felt to their secret and darkest thoughts during the desperate days of the French Terror.
Brenton manages to capture Buchner’s exhilarating energy in this pithy, pared-down new version as Danton struggles to avoid his inexorable fall.

Director Michael Grandage keeps the pace brisk and our attention maintained for two hours (the play is performed without an interval) as the fate of France is discussed at length in a series of scenes that unfold in dark rooms illuminated by the occasional shaft of sunlight which gives this tense drama an atmosphere of foreboding, while the introduction of the guillotine at the climax is truly breathtaking.

Toby Stephens makes a charistmatic Danton, a man passionately in love with life, yet haunted with guilt and fearful of the future. His impressive performance is matched by Elliot Levey as the cold-blooded, hypocritical, fanatical prig Robespierre, a man who claimed to be “incorruptible” and the complete antithesis of his former friend, the red-blooded Danton. In a strong NT ensemble Barnaby Kay as Danton’s right-hand man, the poet and journalist Camille Desmoulins, and Alec Newman as Saint-Just, a member of the Committee of Public Safety and supporter of Robespierre, stand out.

This certainly is a production that lingers in the mind long after the actors have left the stage.

By Laurence Green

When: Plays in repertory until 14th October.

Where: National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium

Box Office:  020 7452 3000

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