Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond


August 19, 2010

Toby Stephens
Photo: Johan Persson/NT 2010

Now that my jet lag is finally starting to subside, I should mention one last performance on last week’s schedule before it slips my mind. On a overnight layover in London, I did catch the National Theater’s new production of Büchner’s Danton’s Death starring Toby Stephens. There’s little about this history play in a new adaptation by Howard Brenton that doesn’t feel somehow out of place. The play follows the interpersonal intrigue among Danton, Robespierre and a number of other principal figures during the Reign of Terror in Paris in the spring of 1794. It’s a play filled with characters filled with intense passion about political and social ideals written by a young man, Georg Büchner, who was filled with them as well. And while Büchner was interested in exposing the hypocrisy in the violent tactics of the terror, he was simultaneously enamored of the revolutionary spirit in all of the play’s characters. Put at the center of this mix Danton, a revolutionary who has decided he’s more lover than fighter, and you’ve got one fairly explosive combination for a theatrical production.

So why does this production directed by Michael Grandage fall so flat? There are plenty of virile speeches delivered from virtually every character at all points of the basic stage set, but there’s something wary and tired about it all. There’s an energetic youthfulness that has been misplaced here, I wager, in an effort to draw clearer parallels between the evils of the Terror and those places in which terror lives on in our contemporary sociopolitical context. Not that Grandage’s production is in any way anachronistic or filled with outright contemporary references. It just comes off like a classroom lecture. There are some splashy effects including a very convincing guillotine scene at the play's conclusion. At the center of the performance is Toby Stephens in the title role. He was excellent in 2007’s revival of Pinter’s Betrayal at the Donmar Warehouse and there is no doubt he can carry big starring roles like Danton on stage. But his “Can’t I just be left alone to love?” protestations begin to have a sitcom sensibility by the time the midpoint of this Danton’s Death is reached. The rest of the cast is quite good, but most of the other characters in the play are so underdeveloped, it’s hard to feel much connection to any of them. Robespierre all but disappears by the halfway point and Danton’s wife has a lovely speech when she finally is given something to do toward the end of the play. Danton’s Death, despite its relevance, never really rises above a somewhat dry history lesson, and for all of its youthful passion, it feels decidedly inert. It continues at the National Theater in London through October 14.


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