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. 

Losing Venice at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

L0064135 Map of Venice

Losing Venice

Orange Tree Theatre, 24th September 2018

A modicum of research was all that was required to realise that this was going to be a curious, but also intriguing, entertainment. Which is near enough exactly what it was. Jo Clifford’s play was a hit at the Edinburgh fringe when it first appeared in 1985. With its story of a great Empire now in decline, and its scrutiny of strict gender roles in society, it is easy to see why the OT’s Paul Miller was drawn to revive it. The play certainly chimes with key contemporary debates on Brexit and toxic masculinity, and Jo Clifford’s own personal journey makes it more absorbing, but it is, structurally at least, something of an acquired taste.

Tim Delap plays the Pedro Tellez Geron (1574-1624) the third Duke of Osuna, a military adventurer, who, after becoming Viceroy of Sicily, and then of Naples, for Golden Age Spain, plotted to conquer Venice. The plot was uncovered and Osuna subsequently fell from favour after Philip III’s death in 1621. Jo Clifford’s play teams the Duke up with Francisco de Quevedo y Villegas, (played by Christopher Logan), a poet and secretary to Queen Ana in the Spanish Court of Felipe II. He put himself about a bit, generally ruffled feathers and was one of the prime exponents of a dramatic writing style at the time known as Conceptismo, characterised by rapid rhythm, directness, simple vocabulary, witty metaphors and word-play. It prized multiple meanings and conceptual intricacies, in stark contrast to the ornateness of rival style at the time of Culteranismo. Both were obsessed with honour, reputation and chastity building on the sort of flummery that had bedevilled the world of secular culture for centuries prior.

Now knowing this, and that Jo Clifford had previously translated some of the greats from Spanish Golden Age theatre such as Calderon de la Barca, and you can begin to understand the structure of Losing Venice. For this to is a story with multiple meanings which moves rapidly across space and time and appears quite stylised. Ms Clifford sought to take a current (in the 1980s) sensibility on politics and gender and fuse it with this ostensibly “true” history with a contemporary (for 1618) dramatic style. Designer Jess Curtis in this revival has highlighted this synthesis with her costumes which mix the Golden Age with a 1980s post-punk, New Romantic look.

The adventures of the strutting Duke and affected Quevodo draw in other parties, servants Pablo (Remus Brooks), Maria (Eleanor Fanyinka), the rejected and oddly coiffed Duchess (Florence Roberts, also a Priest), Secretary (Dan Wheeler who also provides some music), the grouchy King (David Verrey) and the prosaic “Mr and Mrs Doge” (David Verrey and Eleanor Fanyinka again). A key role is that of the Sister here played by Tia Bannon and not, unfortunately given the extra dimension this would have brought, the originally cast Josh-Susan Enright. Not that Ms Bannon didn’t try to fully commit, as did her colleagues, to the play. It is just that it is so striking in tone that I wasn’t entirely clear just how “inside” the characters Paul Miller wished them to be. The knowing, and sometimes farcical, tone, the sense that the performers, indeed the whole play, was “looking into” the events as a metaphor or lesson for something else, the decline of Empire and the desire of boys to always go fighting, didn’t completely take over, such that it could just be read as a rapid, and somewhat bitty, and increasingly odd, history play, (where I would guess most of the audience didn’t know the history).

Still once you adjusted to this idiosyncratic form there was stuff to savour and it didn’t drag on, even giving us an interval to ponder what was going on. The Duke doesn’t really do consequences, is locked in the past, sees everything as a contest and takes vanity to extremes. His fading libido is conjoined with that of his country. All in all a prize dickhead not unlike a few of our current crop of deluded politicians. Quevedo’s pen may be mightier than his sword but his fine words don’t necessarily resonate with his master and there are a whole heap of unbuttered parsnips here. The women and servants look on with various degrees of exasperation. Eleanor Mayinka stands out as the sympathetic Maria but maybe just because she is the most sincere character in the play.

So this might be a play whose novelty has played out, or it might be a play that was over-praised in the first place. Or maybe it is, as my Mum would have said, “too clever for its own good”. Or maybe it is a production where the normally very reliable Paul Miller couldn’t quite make up his mind. Or rather where he couldn’t quite pin down this slippery, and odd, fish. Or maybe, for once, the OT space was a hindrance not a help. I think it might be a little bit of all of these things but offsetting this is a spark of invention and bravado that I, for one, am always happy to see. Even if it didn’t quite come off, I can safely say I haven’t ever seen anything like it. And that it itself is no small praise. A counter to the excess of lazy literalism which pollutes the body politic is surely no bad thing.