Olivier Theatre, London SE1
Opened 22 July, 2010

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 Death. 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 Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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