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The Prince Of Homburg

Published 28 July 2010

Jonathan Munby, who directed Dominic West in Life Is A Dream, returns to the Donmar Warehouse with a play that conjures a similar dream-like atmosphere, Heinrich Von Kleist’s The Prince Of Homburg.

We meet the hero of this early 19th century piece, the titular Prince of Homburg, in a trance-like state, caught up in his dreams of victory on the battlefield and love in his heart. The spirited, youthful prince of the Brandenburg army is talented on the battlefield but not so adept at reining himself in: his wilfulness has nearly resulted in disaster twice already, and the Elector – Prussian ruler, army chief and the prince’s surrogate father – won’t tolerate a third near-miss. So when the prince, caught up in passion and impetuousness, disobeys an order during a battle against Sweden, the Elector chooses to punish him with his life.

In a programme note, British Army colonel Tim Collins impresses the importance of obedience within the army; discipline, he says, is “the factor that distinguishes [an army] from a rabble”. This is adhered to like sellotape by Ian McDiarmid’s Elector, a wily, forceful man who reveals little human emotion for the prince he has seen grow up. Though the prince’s actions resulted in success – the Swedish army was cut down – the Elector remains steadfast in his respect for the rules. No one, not even a popular prince who has just secured a major victory, is above them.

It is a coming-of-age journey for the prince. When we first meet him, Charlie Cox portrays the endearing young officer as little more than a boy: virile, impassioned, naive and easily distracted. When summoned to take orders for the forthcoming battle he acts like a schoolboy, unable to pay attention due to the presence of a woman, the Elector’s niece, whom he wants to marry. When he is arrested after the battle, his initial disbelief turns first to desperation and then, eventually, to dignified acceptance.

Though it takes a while to warm up, Dennis Kelly’s adaptation of Von Kleist’s play whips along in the second half, with a contemporary feel to the language and some humour in surprising places. McDiarmid just stops short of turning the Elector into a comic villain as he rolls the words around in his mouth, holding command of the stage as he does his army. Despite the unavoidable fact that he is right to punish the prince, each step of the way you believe that his humanity won’t allow him to send the prince to his death.

Courage, maturity, strength, obedience: all these things the prince must find as he sits alone in his prison cell. But even with them, will he be a match for the intense disciplinarian that is the Elector? The cliffhanger is maintained right until the end.

CB

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