The Pit, London EC2
Opened 18 January, 2000

A brief disquisition upon applause: by convention, an audience will applaud at the interval and the final curtain; occasionally, applause will break out mid-act, either on the entrance of a particularly famous performer or at the end of an especially bravura individual passage. Seldom if ever does one spontaneously clap a first-rate scene or exchange simply for being so damned fine. Yet on a couple of occasions in The Pit, I wanted to do precisely that for Gale Edwards's terrific production and a clutch of marvellous central performances in dynamic equilibrium with one another.

Robert David MacDonald's translation of Schiller's great, sprawling, Sturm und Drang-cum-High Romantic play was first staged in the Edinburgh International festival in 1995; reviewing that production, I remarked that an actor in the title role "has little to do except rage until the final act offers some respite." Rupert Penry-Jones admirably shows how hasty this judgement was. His is a Carlos who, for all his Hamletian angst and antics, is nevertheless firm in his own mind and heart: still in love with former fiancee and now stepmother Elizabeth of Valois, and keen to prove himself a genuine convert to the liberal ideals espoused by his friend the Marquis of Posa in the cause of the Spanish Netherlands.

Over the several years of the play's composition, Schiller's main focus altered from Carlos himself to Posa. In Ray Fearon's performance, Posa's Romantic fervour in personal and political spheres alike is at once appealing and disquieting: whilst he ultimately sacrifices himself for Carlos, his earlier machinations are almost Jacobean in their complex pursuit of an obsessive single goal. The fire in the eyes of Josette Simon's Elizabeth may lead to mild overweighting of the occasional moment in her conspiracy with Posa, but she is overwhelmingly both clear and affecting in performance. Indeed, clarity is the keynote of Edwards's production, in terms both of explicating the convoluted intertwining narratives and of the delivery of MacDonald's unforced verse translation.

If Carlos carries echoes of Hamlet, then John Woodvine's Philip II is at times Leontes, Lear and even an elderly Brutus, putting what he sees as the survival of the state and his own "century" (a constant motif in MacDonald's translation) above his dearest and closest, such as that is, by handing his own son over to John Rogan's tiny, blind, desiccated yet unyielding Grand Inquisitor. Woodvine's vocal delivery is faultless, and his face, always expressive, has grown more so over the years, to the point where he can now convey nuance by twitching not even a single eyebrow but a single muscle in that eyebrow. He is magnificent throughout a play which is a long haul, but always both an emotionally and intellectually gripping one.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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