Michael Grandage, the director who has spent the last two years turning all he touches to gold at the Donmar Warehouse, has crossed the river to the National Theatre to attempt to create the same magic with the revolutionary epic Danton’s Death.
Georg Büchner’s 1835 play has been adapted and streamlined by Howard Brenton who Grandage relies on to create the same level of urgency and psychological drama that the original playwright must himself have felt, writing it in hiding whilst attempting to avoid arrest for his own revolutionary actions.
Danger and fear are certainly portrayed on the vast Olivier stage as the action unfolds. Set during the Reign of Terror, the charismatic French revolutionary Danton is pitched against the virtuous Robespierre. Once friends sharing the same political ideals, the revolution has created false alliances and broken trust. In an attempt to hold Danton up as an example, Robespierre plots to have him killed while life-loving Danton tries all he can to avoid the guillotine.
Toby Stephens portrays Danton as a magnetic leader of the people, attracting them with his confident swagger and loudly-voiced confident opinions, a close-to-the-edge joke never far away. Passionate about worldly pleasures, equally in love with his wife and several brothel workers, and sure of his atheist beliefs, Danton’s bravado is in such direct contrast to Robespierre (Elliot Levey) that it is hard to imagine them ever being confidants. Played with the perfect level of snivelling awkwardness and sneering confusion, Levey’s slight frame is overshadowed by Stephens’s overbearing Danton.
It is the differences between these two characters upon which Brenton focuses his adaptation, which becomes a psychological courtroom drama pitching virtue against vice. Should the revolution be won by men able to take their pleasures where they like and enjoy life to the full? Or should society be run with strict religious morals, modesty and restraint?
Stephens’s and Levey’s excellent performances make it clear that neither men’s positions are as confident as they would have others believe. Frightened Robespierre relies on less-than-virtuous made-up legalities and lies to fight his corner, only allowing himself to confess his sins in secret, while Danton’s bravado thins with the fear of his forthcoming judgement and the realisation that atheism offers no comfort or escape from the realities of death.
Christopher Oram’s wooden set works in harmony with Paule Constable’s lighting to create an atmosphere that switches from comforting, warm, bathing light with rich mahogany colours, to covering the characters in shadowy bars when the vast shutters are opened to reveal overbearing windows, perfectly capturing the dark events unfolding.
While some prior research is advisable for any audience members not equipped with any historical knowledge of the French revolution past Les Misérables, the poetic and passionate dialogue that the energetic cast brings to life provides a rousing, if not epic, night at the theatre. And, if all that political philosophising fails to impress, just wait until you get to the quite frankly astonishing guillotine scene.