This is the summer of Howard Brenton.
His socialist convictions may be less on view in his play about Anne
Boleyn about to open at Shakespeare’s Globe, but they palpably inform
both his adaptation of Robert Tressell’s novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
(currently playing at Chichester) and his version of Georg
Büchner’s 1835 play Danton’s
. Büchner and Brenton’s Danton is the personification
of the limits of legitimacy of the French Revolution: his execution in
1794 marked the Terror becoming as tyrannical and arbitrary as the ancien régime
had ever been.
The line between proto-socialism and authoritarian dictatorship is
drawn in his blood.
He is also the life principle of the Revolution: yes, he drinks and
whores, but the play suggests that in this he demonstrates that the
upheavals can improve people’s lives, as opposed to the arid virtue of
Robespierre being an end in itself. It is not as silly as it sounds to
observe that Robespierre gets none of the play’s laugh lines; Danton
and his faction, in contrast, even summon up a vein of gallows humour
about their own imminent death and bodily decomposition.
Toby Stephens makes an excellent Danton: somehow he seems to swagger on
his first appearance even though he is lying on his back in a woman’s
arms. At his trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal in Act Three of
this uninterrupted 110-minute presentation, Stephens seems to grow
physically stockier, as Danton manifests as the rollicking bruiser who
symbolised the Revolution’s vigour in so many ways. In contrast, Elliot
Levey’s Robespierre is a slighter figure who sometimes raises his
voice, but never shouts; he embodies his own sense of propriety to the
extent that, even in a period-costumed production, he is the only one
to wear a wig. The fiery anti-Danton demagoguery is left to Alec Newman
as Saint-Just, at once impassioned and yet heartless as he rails
zealously in indictment.
Fine performances, but the play itself has not aged well. Personal and
political speeches alike bear the stamp of Romanticism, but not even
Brenton’s playwriting skill and ideological dedication, combined with
Michael Grandage’s directorial control and the strong central cast, can
make these serial debates (usually laden with Roman republican
allusions) vibrant. As with the Tressell adaptation, fine ideals do not
necessarily translate into equally fine drama.
Written for the Financial