The Gate Theatre brings its "Storm And Stress" season of German drama to a climax with a play which all but defines the term. Friedrich von Schiller began writing The Robbers in 1778, when he was 19 years old, and the work exhibits all the turbulent darkness of the Sturm und Drang literary movement which would later give way to the Romantic Revolution. Two centuries later, its London audience is aware of the play's contrived and derivative elements, but its inchoate, raging desire to come to terms with the world's multitude of injustices still makes a strong connection.
When amoral hypocrite Franz von Moor deceives his ailing father into disowning his elder brother Karl, the latter takes to the forests of Bohemia as captain of a robber band whilst Franz sets about hounding the old man into his grave in order to succeed to the family title and the hand of Karl's beloved Amalia. Franz has all the nihilism of a Jacobean villain; Karl's attempts to live by a Robin Hood-like criminal morality founder in a world where God is, if not dead, at least directing his attention elsewhere. Even by returning home in disguise he finds himself unable to resolve matters, and after Franz's suicide he surrenders himself to the force of the law.
The opposition of good and evil brothers, the devices of disguise and reunion of father and son in exile (the old Count, obstinately refusing to die, is clapped in a dungeon by Franz), echo the Gloucester plot of King Lear, but this world shows no signs of returning to a rightful order after its upheavals. The young Schiller wildly questions the iniquities both of society and the human condition, but sees no answers.
Robert David MacDonald's translation is straight but not stodgy, allowing many of Franz's lines – in Ian Hughes' performance and Lindsay Posner's finely balanced direction – to become grimly comic without devaluing the play's themes. A process of careful nipping and tucking has abbreviated many of the lengthier and, well, more characteristically German philosophical dialogues so that Phil McKee's restless, morally questing Karl does not get terminally bogged down in discourse. Carol Starks, too, exhibits a welcome defiance as the bereft Amalia, a character written with more steel in her soul than later Romantic idealism would usually permit.
As usual, the Gate's space is utterly transformed: Joanna Parker's design places the audience on three sides of a timbered oblong, dimly lit from above and below through a number of iron grilles (lighting designer Simon Corder displays an almost Katie Mitchell-like fondness for gloom). Spectators and players inhabit the same physical environment, and hence the same world of moral brutality. Posner's production does the play and the season proud.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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