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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Prince of Homburg

I want to produce a dynasty of victors through order — The Elector
The Prince of Homburg
Ian McDiarmid as The Elector (Photo: Johann Persson)
Nearly two hundred years ago, in 1811, the thirty-four year old playwright, Heinrich von Kleist, took his life. Born into a family of Prussian military excellence, at a time when the nation had risen to supreme European fighting power, Heinrich refused to tow the military line, entering instead the civil service and writing seven complete plays that are now part of the German dramatic canon. The Prince of Homburg, his last play, is regarded as his finest work. The Donmar celebrates this little-known (to British theatregoers) playwright with a new version of his anxiety-ridden exploration of duty and national pride, adapted by Dennis Kelly.  

The result? A confrontation between a Prussian leader, The Elector (Ian McDiarmid), who rules by the army book, demanding absolute obedience to his every command, and a young officer who adapts and reacts on the field of battle, winning glory and respect from his peers but, ultimately, who threatens the overall plan of campaign. How Kleist explores these issues of duty and respect demonstrates his mounting disavowal of those Enlightenment values that allowed so all-powerful a ruler as Frederick the Great to forge the Prussian military machine from the blood and sweat of his slave-like army.  

Director Jonathan Munby, and his designer Angela Davies, have relocated Homburg's battle with the Swedes, and with himself and The Elector, to the years of Kleist's suicide, when Europe faced the overarching power and destructive might of Napoleon's French army. Here is a Germanic regime on the wane, the power that The Elector seeks to wield founded on fear, not compassion. Army commanders would die for their Fatherland. They would never die for The Elector who represents its head.  

To accommodate this Prussic world, the Donmar stage is transformed into a prisonlike stone space, its back and side walls clad in gun-metal granite, the occasional Prussian eagle-headed banner adding a startling splash of black, red and white to the relentless grey of the surroundings. Items of strategic gold-embossed furniture, a classical-inspired statuette, an ornate writing desk, all add to the creation of a court in which the aristocratic ladies sport Empire-line flowing dresses and the men click their heels and clash their breasts with military precision.  

This harsh world is ruled by The Elector, played with astonishing power and vocal dexterity by Ian McDiarmid. Here is a ruler whose very look could act as firing squad in deathly intensity. McDiarmid doesn't strut his tyrannical power. There is no need. His mere presence onstage as an ageing, malevolent spirit, is enough to send shivers through the collective spine.  

The Elector is intrigued at first by the night-time meandering of the young Prince of Homburg, portrayed with intense humanity by Charlie Cox. Caught sleepwalking by his friend, Count Hohenzollern (Harry Hadden-Paton), the young Prince is at first an object of fun as he gazes in somnambulistic glee at the moon, clutching a laurel wreath in his hand after the previous day's battle. Unfortunately, The Elector notes a threat to his power far more insidious than youthful passion and military prowess. Young Homburg loves The Elector's niece, Princess Natalia (Sonya Cassidy), a pawn in the ensuing history of this embattled state, whose proposed marriage to the nation's Swedish enemy is the only way to lasting peace. Homburg threatens that peace.  

When, therefore, the Prince of Homburg makes a glorious and successful mistake on the field of battle, he is adored and punished with equal intensity. The Elector elects to send this young hero to the firing squad. His crime? Succeeding by accident and disobeying orders. In this world, there is no room for accidental heroes. No room for individual response and intuitive action.  

The will of The Elector must be obeyed. When, therefore, we watch the Prince's journey from frightened prisoner begging his aunt (Siobhan Redmond's excellent Electress) for his life, to aristocrat accepting his dutiful death, we see why the Fascist regime should find his self-sacrifice in response to a tyrannical Fuehrer's wishes so appealing. For us, this youthful journey is not so much heroic as blinded by faith and a false sense of duty. The result, a bitter taste in this most bitter of plays.  

The Donmar has certainly offered a fascinating evening of Prussic acidity with Kleist's uncompromisingly intense play. Perhaps Dennis Kelly's version is a tad modern in its quick-fire machine-gun dialogue, but that might, in all fairness, be a problem with Kleist himself. What is guaranteed is some amazingly fine acting and a moral conundrum that appears as dated in its acceptance of authority and tyranny as it does immediate in its unmitigated horror at political intrigue and negotiation where the goods on offer are the lives of the very people the Fatherland is meant to defend.

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The Prince of Homburg
Written by Heinrich von Kleist
In a new version by Dennis Kelly
Directed by Jonathan Mumby

Starring: Ian McDiarmid, Charlie Cox, Siobhan Redmond, David Burke, Sonya Cassidy
With: Simon Coates, Jolyon Coy, Harry Hadden-Paton, William Hoyland, Mark Theodore, Julian Wadham, Lizzie Winkler
Design: Angela Davies
Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Music: Dominic Haslam
Movement Director: Laila Diallo
Running time: Two hours 25 minutes with one interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7264
Booking to 4th September 2010
Reviewed by Kevin Quarmby based on 28th July 2010 performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX (Tube: Covent Garden)
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