Schiller's 1787 account of labyrinthine romantic and political wrangles among the Spanish Habsburgs is given a modern-historical-blockbuster angle in a production by the triumvirate at the helm of Glasgow's Citizens Theatre: Philip Prowse directs and designs, Robert David MacDonald translates and Giles Havergal plays King Philip II. As with his translation of Schiller's The Robbers, recently staged at London's Gate Theatre, MacDonald has fashioned a text which allows apparently uninflected lines to draw ironic laughter from an audience. Here, the unintentional gags emanate from the King, piercing to the heart of his courtiers' intrigues with a single succinct phrase, and Prince Carlos himself, who in Benedick Bates's characterisation emerges as a cross between his namesake Norman and a young John Cleese.
Carlos is a largely thankless role; indulging himself with near-idiotic fervour in a quasi-incestuous lust for his stepmother and a fruitless quest to win his father's political respect and familial affection, an actor has little to do except rage until the final act offers some respite. As Schiller wrote the play, his attention shifted from the sexual to the political, with the result that the eponymous character is eclipsed by his friend, the liberal Marquis of Posa. Andrew Woodall's Posa is more mature and considered in his passion for the political freedom of the Spanish Netherlands, exhorting the king to "allow men the right to think" and allowing himself to be digested by the court machine in the vain hope of using it to his own ends.
Havergal's Philip is intractable until jealousy of his queen distracts his attention from the power struggles fomented by his equally arid confessor Father Domingo (Murray Melvin) and the Duke of Alba (Matthew Zajac, wearing one black glove in a performance that owes more to Bond villain Blofeld than to Michael Jackson). The central knot of characters invite comparison with the Danish court in Hamlet; however, these plots and counter-plots are not only more complex but shot through with Schillerian musings upon, as the programme notes put it, "the fatality of either denying or demanding freedom of thought" in both the political and philosophical senses.
Prowse's production, played on an austere black set beneath huge expressionistic gilt crenellations, eschews his frequent floridity in favour of concentrating (with at least partial success) on making reasonably dynamic sense of a three-hour plot which is impossible to summarise. Only one wild, excessive device is employed: the five-act play is performed with four intervals. This is a mixed blessing: one spectator's pause for reflection is another's irritating discontinuity. Speaking for myself, the effect of breaking every 30 to 40 minutes was akin to watching a made-for-TV historical blockbuster and being compelled to go out and make the tea during every commercial break. MacDonald has been adept at turning Schiller's act endings into dramatic cliffhangers, but at the price of trivialising the bulk of the proceedings. The evening becomes less a performance than an event, which one attends not in order to be there but to have been there.
Written for The Independent.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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