Don Carlos at the Rose Kingston review ****

Don Carlos

Rose Theatre Kingston, 9th November 2018

No one could accuse Friedrich Schiller of holding back in Don Carlos. Goethe inspired Sturm und Drang Romanticism, a Kantian paean to the centrality of personal freedom and democracy, the clash of liberty and tyranny, a stab at the sublime, a (loose) history of a turning point in the Spanish Golden Age, a political thriller chock full of intrigue, an (incestuous) love story, an increasingly intense Renaissance style tragedy lifting directly from Shakespeare, most notably Hamlet and Othello, but also Lear, Julius Caesar and Henry IV, which spills over into melodrama: it is big on passion and big on ideas. Operatic in scope you might say. Which is why Verdi wasn’t the only one who espied its potential. 

It took five years to write, finally published in 1787, which might also explain its meandering nature and abrupt tonal shifts, and, if you were unfortunate enough to sit through the original, ostentatious five acts of blank verse in their entirety you wouldn’t get much change out of seven hours. No one ever has mind you. This is kitchen sink drama. As in Freddy chucked the dramatic kitchen sink at it, not as in a pint-sized slice of domestic realism. 

This production, in a translation by Robert David MacDonald, clocks in at 3 hours. Schiller was largely ignored by the English speaking world for a couple of centuries. One reason why he no longer is, as well as Goethe, Lermentov, Gogol, Goldoni and Racine, is Mr MacDonald. Fluent in 8 languages he was the brains behind the Glasgow Citizens Theatre as well as an accomplished playwright in his own right.

Nor could one accuse Israeli director Gadi Roll, and actor Tom Burke, whose inaugural production as theatre company Ara this is, of holding back. Ara is intended to bring non-naturalistic theatre to the regional masses (though I am not sure the good people of Kingston, half an hour by train away from the South Bank, qualify as regional). They have started with a bang here. This is stripped back minimalist European auteur theatre which prizes style as well as content. Designer Rosanna Vize, who normally offers just a little more, makes do with the bare Rose stage and a few chairs, and modern dress with a vague Golden Age/Matrix flourish (and a lot of shades). The constantly moving lighting rigs in Jonathan Samuels’s design are dramatic and very effective (he worked with Gadi Roll on the Belgrade Coventry productions of The House of Bernarda Alba and Don Juan Comes Back From The War which is where Tom Burke met Mr Roll). The mingling of the private and public spheres.

The actors move around the stage in stylised straight lines. In the first couple of acts, the cast, notably Samuel Valentine as Don Carlos himself and Alexandra Dowling as the Princess of Eboli, (though with the notable exception of Tom Burke himself as the Marquis of Posa, the cool, calm voice of reason perhaps), spit their lines out with machine gun intensity, requiring the audience to keep ears and brains on their toes as it were. And there is a lot of shouting, notably from Darrell D’Silva’s Philip II. It is very, very, very dark most of the time and black is the dominant fashion. A nod to Velasquez, Ribera, Murillo et al?

I loved it. I see that the proper critics were less enamoured. Maybe the novelty of the play itself has worn off for these cynical hacks? The less than dynamic staging, the delivery of the lines and some of the acting didn’t past muster for many of them. Now I admit that the deliberately non-naturalistic choices made by Gadi Roll, in terms of look, movement and speech, did take a bit of getting used to, but necessary adjustment made, actually helped to see through to the core of Schiller’s text and messages and helpfully circumvent the worst of the melodrama. And it wasn’t just me. The SO, attracted by the history, and Mr TFP, an expert on German literature and culture, and a man who has read Schiller in German, agreed with me. I am guessing though that not all of the audience were as persuaded.

Young Don Carlos, the Infante, has the hots for Elizabeth of Valois (Kelly Gough). The only problem is Dad, Philip II, has married her. Dad also doesn’t trust the hot-headed Prince to get stuck into the affairs of government. And big Phil remember ousted his own Dad to seize the throne. When Carlos’s boyhood chum, the Marquis de Posa, returns to Court he confides his love and de Posa agrees to advance his suit if he in turn will help free the rebellious people of Flanders, oppressed by nasty Spain. Carlos asks Phil if he can go to Flanders (more exactly the Spanish Netherlands). Phil refuses and instead sends the Duke of Alba (Vinita Morgan). Cue bust up between the Duke and Don Carlos. There is a note and a key and Carlos ends up in the Queens bedroom with the Princess de Eboli who fancies him and wants to escape the clutches of the randy King. Thwarted she goes to Domingo (Jason Morell) the King’s Confessor. He plots with Alba to bring down the Queen and Carlos. A trap is laid but the suspicious King enlists de Posa to help uncover it. The Marquis’s enlightened ideas start to persuade the King but tyrants will be, albeit pragmatic, tyrants. There are some letters. misunderstandings, arrests, imprisonments, failed murders, accusations, double crossings, realisations, escapes and then, just when everyone least expects it, the Spanish Inquisition arrives (with Tom Burke doubling up as the Grand Inquisitor). To remind us that in C16 Spain it was ultimately the Catholic Church that held, literally, the whip hand. 

Obviously it does get a bit silly but the bare bones of the romantic tragedy are involving and there is a brio to the story which is irresistible. The intellectual set piece between the Marquis and the King, “give men the right to think”, is powerful, affecting stuff, which gets to the heart of the struggle between absolutism and representation, filtered, as it is, through the recognition by Philip that the Marquis, even with his heresies, is the son he really wanted. Especially when you realise that the “real” Don Carlos was an utter f*ckwit. A victim of Hapsburg inbreeding, deformed, mentally unstable even before he underwent a trepanation, he might have blinded all the horses in the Royal stables, and was prone to chucking servants out of windows. Phil eventually locked him up. The despot in Philip is plain to see, but we also see his humanity, and his justifications. And de Posa may have right on his side but boy does he know it and, intoxicated by his own argument, he will manipulate anyone and everyone to get what he wants. 

What next for Ara? This was a pretty bold first move. On the assumption that the style, the look, feel and intent of the company is set, I wonder if they might not be better served, at least in terms of critical response, by reviving a more recent play. We shall see. I hope they continue to aim high though. 

Now a few words on the “gosh, how did that Greek/Jacobean/Restoration/Spanish Golden Age/French classicist/German romantic playwright create something so uncannily relevant to today” trope. It’s not because they could see into the future or were especially politically prescient. It is because we, as human beings, either individually or collectively, haven’t moved on much. We may have smartphones, good teeth and a colossal amount of debt, but the way we interact with each other in the body politic, and the core of our individual psychologies, haven’t changed much in the pitifully tiny amount of time where we have, to the detriment of other species I fear, “ruled” this planet. So if a playwright can nail these truths, whether in the 5th century BCE or yesterday, we will listen. Don Carlos was first staged two years before the French Revolution: by the time he published the final version in 1805 the dream has collapsed into the Reign of Terror and Napoleon was Emperor. Then Schiller popped his clogs. And you think we live in worrying times. 

Having now seen this production, and the Almeida Mary Stuart, I hope to be able to bag another Schiller one day, The Robbers, Intrigue and Love, the Wallenstein Trilogy: all look likely candidates. He makes you work hard for your money, there is a lot, maybe too much, discussion, debate, confrontation and contemplation, but that is what the best dramatists do. And his characters are not just good, bad or indifferent. That is the true test of the playwright, the ability to show us many facets of the human condition, not all of which make sense or stack up. Nuance, ambivalence, enigma, complexity. To be on both sides, and on neither. 

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