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A CurtainUp London Review
by Charlotte Loveridge
Hooded monks stalk a stage predominated by large wooden panels and the lighting gets progressively starker as the court descends into the nadir of its own corruption. Little alleviates this bleak gloominess in the course of the production: there are very few props and the scenery scarcely changes. With jarring incongruity, when the queen extols the natural beauty of the royal gardens at Aranjuez, the audience only witness a slight change in the light and hear faint birdsong.
In spite of this spectacle of unmitigated shadow and oppression, the production is far from sombre. The cast, excellently directed by Michael Grandage, reveal the humans trapped and stifled within this world. Richard Coyle's performance as Don Carlos is especially dynamic for a character who is essentially a victim -- the prince thwarted in his love for Elizabeth, alienated from his father and cut off from any political role by self-seeking, jealous courtier. Impassioned and anguished, Coyle plays his part with great sincerity and fervour.
Derek Jacobi as Philip counterbalances the ardent, young Carlos. Austere and formal, he rebuffs all emotional contact. For the king, familial love has been obliterated by his public persona. When Carlos describes his first infant encounter with his father, the king was occupied in signing the death warrants of his subjects. However, one of the great strengths of the play, brought out by Jacobi's performance, is the development of Philip's character from this unfeeling and apparently two-dimensional villain to a revelation of his fallible humanity. The monarch's isolation, dictated by his fear of insurgence, makes him crave sincerity. Instead, he is surrounded only by the "liquid gold" of his courtiers' self-interested flattery who pamper the king's suspicions, insinuating and manufacturing the treachery of potential rivals.
The Marquis of Posa (Elliot Cowan) with his integrity and ideals of political freedom seems to offer the monarch the prospect of objective disinterest. Schiller's fascination with this character, as testified to in his own letters, has plagued the play with criticisms of structural imbalance. When Schiller first began writing Don Carlos his sympathy and interest centred upon the prince as a tortured lover. In the course of the play's lengthy genesis, however, Schiller exploited the figure of Posa in order to explore some of the political ideas which were prevalent in eighteenth century Europe. In this production, Posa's prominence is moderated and the balance between Philip and Carlos restored. This emphasis clearly presents Posa as the object of the father and son's rivalry in parallel to the queen's role.
The virtuous Queen Elizabeth (Claire Price) is spirited and earnest, investing her character with greater human sympathy and detaching her from the heartlessness of the court. The King's Confessor Domingo (Michael Hadley) and the military Duke of Alba (Ian Hogg) epitomise this court with their reptilian inhumanity. Both holy man and soldier, unscrupulous and ruthless, conspire together to ensure the continuance of their royal favour and influence. The Princess Eboli (Charlotte Randle) enters into their machinations, although motivated by vindictive jealousy as well as political ends.
The Cardinal Grand Inquisitor (Peter Eyre) adds a chilling dimension to the play. Making his entrance only in the penultimate scene, it is revealed that he has monitored and controlled the entire events of the play. Even the king is ultimately a puppet of this covert religious power and the Grand Inquisitor reminds Philip that for a king, men are no more than numbers. He asserts the necessity of filicide and justifies it by mentioning God's sacrifice of his son as a paradigm. Walking with the assistance of nuns and walking sticks, his physical frailty contrasts with his impregnable but unseen authority. His involvement makes the final tragedy extremely menacing and sinister. Far from the gory bloodshed of revenge tragedies, it is all the more disheartening for its subtle certainty. The king's incipient re-humanisation is crushed, along with any hope of a less repressive Spanish rule.
Mike Poulton's new translation has superb lucidity and pace. Purging Schiller of any hint of verbosity or bombast, the text is full of deft shifts of register from the boldly poetic to the colloquial. As Posa asks the king, "You wish to plant a garden that will flower forever./Why do you water it with blood?" Unafraid to employ vocabulary with contemporary significance, the translation nevertheless does not dogmatically confine the meaning of the play to an exclusively modern interpretation.
Don Carlos was directed by the Donmar Warehouse's Artistic Director Michael Grandage in his former theatre in Sheffield and the critical response has helped propel it to London. West End audiences can now enjoy the privilege of seeing this brilliant production. Its triumph lies in its simplicity. Unhampered by gimmicks, Schiller's formidable greatness is allowed to speak for itself and Don Carlos is given the expert treatment that it deserves.
Mendes at the Donmar
Peter Ackroyd's History of London: The Biography
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