Michael Grandage and Friedrich Schiller have history. In the past, the Donmar Warehouse’s Artistic Director has produced fantastic productions of both Don Carlos and Mary Stuart.
Before he waves the pocket-sized producing house goodbye, he is staging another of the German dramatist’s pieces, a story of young loved doomed by class boundaries, corruption combating earnest truthfulness and the seductive wiles of fame and power.
Its premise is simple; musician’s daughter Luise (Felicity Jones) falls for Chancellor’s son Ferdinand (Max Bennett). The Chancellor, being the power-hungry type, can’t allow such a match to continue as he has already positioned his son into a marriage far more convenient for the continuation of his underhanded power, and anyway, the Chancellor’s inveigling secretary has his own eye on the young girl.
With just a handful of characters, we delve into a world of gilded filth, where deviousness wears the most stylish clothes and honesty is abused. But there is nothing showy about Grandage’s production. Instead the director teases strikingly truthful performances from his cast, leaving them to stalk each other around the Donmar’s stage and focus starkly on their reality.
Positions of power come off badly in Schiller’s hands. While Finty Williams, as Luise’s mother, is an outspoken feminist delight and Paul Higgins, as her father, is a place-knowing hat-tipper who wouldn’t ruffle feathers in a turkey farm unless defending his daughter, the courtiers are a distinctly dislikeable bunch. Ben Daniels’s strutting, conniving Chancellor bullies all around him, Alex Kingston excavates the vulnerability in the Prince’s mistress who has slept her way to power, and the heavy-browed John Light is repulsive as the part-fawning part-manipulative Chancellor’s secretary.
Of the central couple, Bennett’s idealistic Ferdinand is a striking presence, while Jones’s Luise has her dreams of true love always tempered with an earth-shattering realism that no teenager should have to endure.
The show’s denouement has more than a hint of Shakespeare about it, but then, so does Mike Poulton’s adaptation, which is full of deep emotion and rich imagery in a text which, though new, has the weighty feel of one that has been around for years, maturing with age.