The opening show in Michael Grandage's final season at the helm of Sheffield Theatres, and the last one he is scheduled to direct there, is typical of his adventurousness and range of interests. Schiller's 1787 play begins as a quasi-incestuous family thriller, with the heir to Philip II of Spain consumed with febrile passion for his stepmother, but torques into high-Romanticism as the dramatist becomes more interested in the prescient Enlightenment ideals of Carlos's friend the Marquis of Posa and a portrait of Philip himself, authoritarian yet racked with conscience, insecure about the truth as only the most powerful man on Earth could be.
It's a remarkable play. The two previous productions of it I've seen, though differing radically in approach, were both underpinned by the scrupulous, unsentimental translation of the late Robert David Macdonald. Grandage uses a new version by Mike Poulton, which feels more faithful to Schiller's own likely tone but, more than two centuries on, pedestrian and at times even unintentionally sniggersome, as when Carlos declares fervently that "my youth, my passion, is inwardly blazing." It's hard to get away with that sort of rhetorical ardour these days, especially when your director has dressed you in doublet and hose.
Grandage's decision to play the evening off a straight period bat is really his only misjudgement. It's excellently cast: both Richard Coyle as Carlos and Derek Jacobi as Philip are actors who combine technical precision with insight into their character, Elliot Cowan keeps up with them as the Marquis, and Ian Hogg excels at the kind of "courtly bruiser" playing required for scheming counsellor the Duke of Alba. Paule Constable's lighting turns Christopher Oram's simple set design into a shadowy labyrinth of a Spanish Habsburg court, underscored (literally) by Adam Cork's Morricone-liturgical music.
But everything else is built on that faulty foundation. The too-formal, stilted words and appearances prevent the piece from taking flight for us. Perhaps, also, it is that we are entering a post-liberal age, when our attention naturally focuses less on the egtalitarian yearnings of Posa than on the price of oppression exacted by even an assiduous, even by his own standards a caring ruler like Philip: for the war on terror with all its consequent restraints, read the war on heresy, driven by Peter Eyre's insectoid Grand Inquisitor. At any rate, it makes for three admirable but ultimately unengaging hours.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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